As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing JoAnna Hartzmark, Founder and CEO of Revelle, an e-commerce brand sitting at the cutting edge of fashion and technology. JoAnna is a champion of women, serving as a change agent to facilitate meaningful success in their lives. JoAnna’s empowering work has been applauded in press and podcasts, spotlighting her efforts to shift the paradigms of the fashion industry by creating a solution that balances the need for both tech and humanity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
The truth is I’m not really “from” anywhere. To this day, I still get frazzled when someone asks me where I grew up because I don’t really have a good answer. I moved around so much as a child that my parents might as well have been gypsies. By the time I was five, I had lived in four different houses and three different cities. Now, as an adult, I’m often bemused by my friends who are all so emotionally attached to their childhood homes that they feel uprooted when their parents suddenly announce that they’re retiring to Florida.
There was no rational reason for our nomadic existence while I was growing up — my father is an economist, and my mother, a murder mystery writer, can work from anywhere. They just had an innate desire for new experiences, and over time I came to realize that I didn’t just accept these new transitions, I enjoyed them. In fact, my family lovingly dubbed me “The Change Maven” because of my eagerness to connect with others and embrace new situations. In the midst of one of my more pivotal moves while I was in high school, I decided on a lark to enroll in a Chinese immersion summer program at the University of Chicago. I fell so in love with the language that I ended up with Chinese Studies as a second major in college and lived in China twice during my undergraduate years.
Besides my newfound love for Chinese culture and language, during my time at Carnegie Mellon I also became obsessed with the fledgling field of Decision Science, a precursor to today’s Behavioral Economics, which is focused on understanding how our inherent biases impact how we as people make decisions every day. I was fascinated with exploring how individual behavior could be analyzed in our increasingly digital world, and the ways in which traditional methods were severely limited by the inconsistencies in how each person makes their own decisions. I realized that it would require a unique blend of art and science to truly examine how we interact. My passion for finding that intersection can be seen in every step in my career.
My professional background was anything but linear. I began my career in financial services, as an analyst at Capital One, before attending the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in search of a more consumer-focused industry where I could leverage my quantitative skills. I pivoted into luxury retail, supporting teams at Gucci and Ralph Lauren, before ending up in the tech industry and discovering how many tech-driven startups were focused on solving problems that straddled two industries. It was the seemingly disparate transitions of my career that ultimately led to my realization that female-focused brands were not doing their part to solve female-centered problems. It was then that Revelle was born.
I started Revelle with the mission of adding value to women’s lives by helping them find clothes that actually fit — NOT by making them shop more. By combining my expertise in analytics and fashion, I felt uniquely positioned to revolutionize the retail industry and change the way women shop online. Revelle is rejecting the norms of building a traditional “fashion” company and putting women at the forefront of the conversation.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
While I may not have realized it at the time, the seeds of Revelle were planted quite early in my life. Looking back now, I remember the first time I went to a tailor to get a piece of clothing altered. I was 16 years old and we’d just moved to Chicago where I was starting at a new high school for my junior year. I can’t even remember what it was that I brought in, but I still remember how the seamstress took one look at my body and treated me like her long-lost daughter.
At the time, I naturally thought she was simply taken in by my winning personality and teenage charm. It was only after years of returning to her for every pair of jeans, party dress, and major wardrobe update that she confided that the minute I walked through her door, she knew she had a customer for life. To this day, I still save up any major investment pieces to cart back to Chicago for the holidays so that she can work her magic.
Eventually, I realized that needing constant alterations wasn’t a unique problem. Almost all the women I knew struggled to find clothing that actually fit them. It took a while longer for me to recognize that we as women were conditioned to look at the issue backwards. Our bodies are not the problem, the clothes we’re trying to squeeze ourselves into are. This is what inspired me to blow up the size chart and build a new online shopping experience with Revelle.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
As I walked down “Fashion Avenue” in New York City, carting what felt like 60 pounds of fabric in the rain, I didn’t think it was particularly funny. But looking back, the fact that I thought I could just bop uptown for 30 minutes and purchase the backdrop for a major photoshoot certainly was.
It had taken months to get ready for Revelle’s first big photoshoot, and I’d spent hours planning with the photographer and my marketing team about how to make it a success. But when the member of my team who was set to lead the shoot had a family emergency, I had no choice but to step in and take on a number of last-minute tasks that she would have normally handled — one of which was to buy fabric to use as the backdrop for the photos. We’d created a mood board for the shoot and discussed the aesthetic tone we were aiming for, so I figured I could just pop into a few fabric stores and pick up what we needed and be back downtown in time for my afternoon meetings. Nearly four hours later, I lugged more fabric than we would possibly need, asking myself if this was what I went to business school for.
I still believe that my intentions were noble — as the CEO of the company, it’s my job to jump in whenever necessary to help out my team. And sometimes that means shouldering the responsibility of something I’m not particularly comfortable with, in this case selecting fabric that would evoke a visual aesthetic. I certainly don’t consider myself ‘creative’, but my team had assured me that I had a good eye and could do this. I’m sure they regretted that as soon as I started frantically texting them pictures of me holding up hundreds of fabrics in different lights trying to see if this was what they actually meant when they said I needed to find a ‘neutral toned tan’ fabric with ‘movement’.
This experience brought me back to one of the earliest lessons in my career, one that it seemed I had forgotten in my latest journey of becoming a business leader, which is that it’s okay to ask stupid questions. In fact, it generally makes you look far more foolish if you don’t ask the questions up front, and instead end up texting your team from the fabric store desperately looking for guidance. As the founder of a company there will undoubtedly be moments where you need to step in and take ownership of a task that isn’t necessarily your area of expertise. But acknowledging your lack of experience is going to make you look like a far more effective leader than trying to pretend you can easily figure it out along the way. I try to remember that whenever something new comes up that might appear simple, but I know nothing about. I remind myself what it felt like to be carting all that fabric around New York City, knowing I purchased too much because I was so worried I’d made the wrong choice. (Spoiler: the fabric looked great on camera, and thank goodness it can be reused again for future shoots.)
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?
I hate to be cliché, but there is no way I would have been able to persevere through the early days of Revelle without my parents. I consider them my closet co-founders, and to this day I call them whenever I’m having a particular difficult day with the business.
At the very beginning of the journey to build Revelle, I found the ambiguity of what I was trying to build to be particularly daunting. How do you start from literal white space (i.e. a blank screen) to create a brand new technology and online shopping experience? My father, an economist, thrives on reshaping intangible problems into structured solutions. And my mother, a murder mystery writer, understands that sometimes imposing structure is simply not enough to push you through.
Whenever I found myself hitting a wall with Revelle, my mother would caution me against forcing too much structure into my work. As a novelist, she had incredible insight into what it was like to create something out of nothing. She literally stares at a blank page and constructs an entirely new world. She constantly reminded me that although I was developing something ‘technical’, I had to treat it as a creative exercise. Because I was, at a foundational level, inventing something new. Shifting my perspective this way was instrumental in enabling me to build a far more complex and nuanced experience for Revelle members. And whenever I hit a wall with a new product development or marketing tactic, I still remind myself that I am, at the core, still creating.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Having moved to live with strangers in Chile when I was 15 years old and lived alone in China — twice — I never anticipated that when I started Revelle I would feel truly lonely for the first time in my life. As a self-funded solo founder, I had no one invested in Revelle’s future but myself. Other entrepreneurs in my network had co-founders and partners, or financial backers who had bought into their vision and were dedicated to bringing it to life. I had none of those people in my corner, so I had to find other avenues of support in my existing network.
I remember when Revelle’s first beta site finally went live, and I was sitting alone in my apartment with no one to celebrate alongside me. I ordered delivery from one of my favorite restaurants in the city and toasted to my own success, or at least to this first major milestone. My friends would take me out to celebrate at another time when we could all get together, but those landmark moments are often lost on a solo founder. That’s why I always advise fellow founders who are just starting out to deliberately build out a strong support network, because persevering through those moments with no one to cheer you on takes a lot of internal motivation which can sometimes be difficult to muster.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I didn’t start Revelle for a quick win or because I wanted to be able to say that I was an entrepreneur. I started Revelle to add value to women’s lives every single day. Knowing that my mission was far greater than a bad day feeling alone, or a frustrating week where nothing seems to be working, has kept me motivated during even the darkest moments.
That being said, it’s been just as important for me to develop better coping mechanisms and a stronger support network to keep pushing Revelle to the next level. As an entrepreneur, I’ve had to accept that my day-to-day life is never going to look like it did when I held a more traditional corporate job, and it will likely never look like my friends’ lives either. So instead of lamenting the fact that my social life isn’t going to be a carbon copy of what it was before, I focus on other ways to build structure within my new days. I take breaks when I can throughout the afternoon, knowing I’ll have to work most evenings. And I set aside non-negotiable time where I won’t do anything Revelle-related, because everyone’s mind needs a break. Finally, I had to take a hard look at my network of friends and decide who was really going to be there for me and answer the phone when I just need someone to vent to — I need to have a backup in case my parents came to their senses and finally stop answering when I call.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The devotion and energy that I put into those early days of building Revelle have translated into a brand that my members love, and an experience where they can feel that they are truly being listened to and prioritized. The response to our mission has been overwhelmingly positive, and we’re already looking forward to what the next phase of Revelle looks like and how we built upon this foundation to truly shatter the norms of how women shop online.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Every single woman that I encounter gets excited when I tell them about what I’m building with Revelle. The women I meet are so enthusiastic that someone is trying to solve this problem that they’ve been dealing with their entire lives. On the other hand, the old school (male) founders and investors that I encounter generally think that I’m nuts.
I found it fascinating that such a dichotomy in perspective existed, and it only convinced me even further that this is the problem that I need to be solving. For far too long female-focused problems have been overlooked by the startup community, and only in recent years have we begun to see a reckoning across industries to try to address this gap. I hope that Revelle will do its part to revolutionize the way that women find clothes that make them feel beautiful — because Revelle is about helping women shop better, not about making them shop more.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I mentioned earlier how important it is for entrepreneurs to understand (and accept) that their lives simply aren’t going to have the same level of structure or consistency as most other people’s. There are no guaranteed weekends off. Most holidays are still workdays. And sometimes stealing enough time to sneak away for a nice dinner out feels like a coup. So my number one piece of advice to new entrepreneurs is to find creative ways to rest and recharge. Prioritizing self-care, both emotional and physical, is critical. Whether that be bath time rituals or a favorite meal in front of the TV, each founder needs to find his or her own way to unplug from their business for a bit and just relax.
For myself, I’ll say that I’ve discovered the many healing properties of old-time stovetop popcorn. Every Sunday, barring unforeseen circumstances, I make myself a batch (or two) of homemade popcorn, sit on my couch, and watch a movie. I find this ritual helps me take a step away from the business — it’s hard to check your phone or computer when your hands are buried in a bowl of warm, salty popcorn. And it also serves as a signal to myself that one week is ending and another is beginning, since as an entrepreneur the difference between the weekday and weekends is often nothing more than a number on the calendar.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My mission with building Revelle is to add value to women’s lives every day, and that purpose is not limited to Revelle members only. I spend as much time as possible mentoring young founders and helping them navigate the often-unforgiving world of entrepreneurship. And I’m always looking for opportunities to speak to groups of young women about how to forge their own paths in life to find success on their own terms.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
There are so many lessons you learn when starting your own company, but here are 5 of my highlights:
- I wish someone had told me that 80% of the advice I would get should just be thrown straight into a Dumpster. When first starting out, I sought out advice from anyone who would listen to me. I’d never intended to be an entrepreneur early in my career, so I felt that I had years of experience to make up for that could only be gained by talking to supposed ‘experts’ in the field. But there’s no playbook to creating a successful company — if there were entrepreneurship wouldn’t be so difficult. Yet most people that I spoke to were convinced that their opinions were the right ones and the advice that I should be following was theirs. I wasted a lot of time trying to follow this advice far too much when I should have simply said thank you and walked away. Because the only person that truly knows the nuances of your own company is you, so you should feel free to ignore any advice that you know goes against your core principles.
- I wish someone had told me that the idea that entrepreneurs never sleep and need to work 24/7 to succeed is a complete and total lie. Perhaps it was part of the reason I was so reluctant to take the plunge into entrepreneurship in the first place, but I’d been told so many stories of founders spending every waking moment blindly pursuing their goal that I truly believed that was the way to succeed. I think this is a dangerous myth that we perpetuate and causes a lot of entrepreneurs to burn out unnecessarily because they work themselves to the bone believing that’s the only way to make it. We’re all humans, and we need to rest. To build something unique, we all need the emotional space to actually be able to create. To this day I still find myself searching for something ‘productive’ to do when I find myself with a surprise hour free, when what I really want to do — and what my mind would most benefit from — is to just sit back and read a book or watch TV. I am still learning how to kick the habit and just reach for the book instead.
- I wish someone had told me how many people want to say they’re entrepreneurs but don’t actually want to build anything. I think in recent years there’s a certain cache to saying you’re an entrepreneur, and as I met more and more founders, I was struck by how many of them weren’t really in it to try to create — they were in it to be labeled. As important as it is to build a solid peer group as a solo founder, there were times when I found myself preferring to be going it alone than be surrounded by people who weren’t going to challenge me to build something great. It’s important to be selective about who you bring into your inner circle.
- I wish someone had told me how sick I would get of my apartment. This one may be true for everyone now that we’re almost a year into a global pandemic, but I was stuck in my apartment long before we all started quarantining. I had to learn how important it was to force myself to go outside and get fresh air from time to time, to move my body even if I was exhausted, and to reach out to other people when I hadn’t spoken to anyone face to face for days. The silver lining of this lesson is that I was able to offer these learnings and support to my own friends when we were all ordered to stay at home.
- I wish someone had told me how many friends I would lose. As I started building Revelle, I naively assumed that everyone would be thrilled that I had found something I was so passionate about that I wanted to devote my career to. In truth, many people couldn’t believe that I could give up my ‘prestigious’ job and comfortable lifestyle. I was blindsided, but likely should have anticipated this shift in my network. Starting a company requires a level of commitment and determination that not everyone in your life is going to understand — and that’s okay. It would have been a far better use of my time to prioritize those friends that were showing me support, and to begin developing relationships with people in my new entrepreneurial network, than to spend hours agonizing over friendships lost that were likely never meant to stand the test of time in the first place.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
The common theme in these lessons for me has been to be careful and deliberate when building relationships, whether that be with my team or with my external network. I still seek advice from fellow founders or industry experts, but I take it all with a grain of salt knowing that no one knows the intricacies of my business but me. I trust my own judgement and decision-making skills above all else, knowing that if we make mistakes no one carries the blame more than I do. And I always work to foster my network of friends and confidants who have proven time and time again that they have my back.
This has led me to manage my team with transparency and openness, valuing communication above all else. I strive to build a relationship based on trust and respect with every person who crosses paths with Revelle, whether that be an employee or a member. And I always work to ensure that everyone has the time they need to take breaks and relax, even as we’re growing at breakneck speed. Because I learned the hard way how easy it is to get sucked into the current and overwhelmed by the desire to always feel productive.
Then finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the healing power of popcorn. Before the pandemic, I used to go to the movies and eat an entire bag of popcorn every Sunday afternoon. Now, I stream a favorite movie online and eat the popcorn on my couch. This seemingly mundane ritual forces me to take a step back from the hustle and relax, and almost always gives me a fresh perspective on whatever I had going on that week. It’s these little routines that keep us sane.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I wish I could disagree, but there is simply no way to analyze entrepreneurship from afar and truly internalize the experiences that we go through to create a company from ground zero. I oftentimes think back to high school, when I reluctantly moved across the country to start junior year in a completely new place. My parents did their best to prepare me for the change, and for my part I tried to imagine what it would be like to make new friends at such an awkward time. In the end, nothing could have prepared me any better than simply walking through the doors on my first day.
These lessons aren’t failures — they’re building blocks. We take these learnings and use them to create a company that is informed by every misstep and hurdle we’ve overcome. If not these mistakes, then there would have been others. And I know without a doubt that Revelle would never have grown to where it is today had I not made these miscalculations, internalized these lessons, and moved forward with the wisdom that they gave me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
I would put an end to the size chart as it exists today. The current structure of the size chart forces women to believe that their bodies are supposed to conform to some sort of linear ‘standard’ and that if they can’t find something that fits, then their bodies must be the problem. There is no reason to impose this artificial labeling on women’s bodies — not to mention the perceived hierarchy that goes along with it. If I had my way, we would have no need for this one-dimensional size chart, but instead create a new structure that accounts for the true complexity of women’s bodies. This system would ensure that all women were included, with no judgmental labels to imply that one body is better than any other.
How can our readers further follow your work online?