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 Lizzy Klein who is a proven startup leader with a talent for scaling early-stage businesses. She is the founder of mazi + zo, a fine jewelry company for customers who value high-quality pieces, elevated design, sustainably-sourced materials, and local production. Prior to launching mazi + zo, she founded SuperDuper, a wildly popular iOS app and also served as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Brand New Matter. Previously, she was VP of Product at Seamless/GrubHub, EverydayHealth, and StarMedia as well as General Manager of Zagat Survey with P&L responsibility for all digital platforms. Through 3 IPOs and 3 acquisitions, Lizzy’s been recognized for creating >$300mm in equity value through strategic product development, as well as for generating revenue, and building high performance, diverse teams.
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?
I grew up in Columbia, MD, a planned city designed by James Rouse with a focus on community as well as racial and economic diversity. In Columbia, each of the neighborhoods takes its name from art and literature and I grew up in Hobbit’s Glen where all of the street names came from J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy (I grew up on Wood Elves Way and had friends on Willowbottom Drive and Tooks Way!) As a kid, I didn’t necessarily recognize Columbia as a special place but Rouse’s ideals, particularly racial and religious inclusion, definitely influenced my values.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My parents were founding members of our temple in Columbia, so I had early insight into the rewards of building something from the ground up. So maybe it wasn’t a surprise that when I participated in sorority recruitment at Cornell, I was more excited about the chance to become a charter member of a sorority that was returning to campus than I was about joining an established sorority that had everything figured out already. And again, maybe not a surprise that after working for two years in fashion, I gravitated towards the NYC startup scene!
Over my career, I always loved taking initiative and feeling ownership over what I accomplish. And I’ve always been a risk taker. But I didn’t recognize those were founder traits right off the bat. In 2014, after leaving a big job at Seamless/GrubHub, I found myself interviewing at other startups, but I just couldn’t get excited about the opportunities. I gave myself a little breathing room and it dawned on me that I didn’t want a “job” because I was ready to start my own thing.
After years in startups, I’ve learned a ton about what drives my passion, when and how I do my best work, and the environment I want to do it in. At mazi + zo, my goal is to build a wildly successful jewelry brand that holds true to my values and to work with people I really like.
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?
When we first designed individual Greek letter stud earrings for sororities, it didn’t occur to us that our workshop team wouldn’t recognize the letters. They soldered the ear post onto the wrong side of the gamma and turned it into an “L”. Lesson learned: you can’t over-communicate when it comes to production specifications.
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’ve never had a formal mentor, but I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by many amazing advisors and role models. A few memorable lessons:
- It’s ok to make mistakes: Like many achievement-oriented women, I’ve been socialized to believe in doing things perfectly, from straight A report cards to flawless product launches. I carried a solid fear of screwing up that added a bunch of unnecessary stress to my everyday and also inhibited me from pursuing projects outside of my comfort zone. Early in my career when I was spinning out over a typo in a presentation, my actress aunt sat me down and said “it’s ok to make mistakes. Most of the time you’re the only one who notices, and almost all of the time you’re the only one who remembers.” The message resonated, and while I always plan on succeeding, I take comfort in knowing that a single mistake (or even failure!) can’t undermine a career of successes.
- You’ve got time: when I was working long hours at Zagat, I couldn’t find time to work out on top of my job, taking care of my dog, volunteering, and a social life. And then I saw a friend founding and running a supercool company, serving on boards, parenting, and running marathons. I thought “if someone with so many big obligations can find time to train for a marathon, I can certainly find 3–5 hours a week for my exercise.” And I did. How? I traded off some lesser priorities like online Scrabble and Friends reruns, and I had to learn to accept shorter or inconsistent workouts as legitimate workouts (which syncs up with letting go of perfectionism.)
- It’s ok to quit: My favorite podcast episode of all time is Freakonomics’s The Upside of Quitting (Episode 42). Reframing “quitting” as a rational economic choice vs. failure changed the game for me. After listening, I’ve been more open to trying things that require ongoing commitments (Spanish lessons!) because I won’t beat myself up if I choose to quit (though I’d never quit and leave someone else in the lurch.)
Big thanks to my auntie, friend, and Malcolm for the guidance!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We’re in it! The pandemic has presented so many challenges to my business: my workshop was shut down 3x, I was quarantined with COVID-19, I’ve had no access to models, gold prices skyrocketed, online marketing is insanely crowded, and in-person selling opportunities were all canceled. The 2020 holiday selling season was tough, but I’m grateful that I’ve got resources to manage through these challenges and I can’t complain when other people are facing much greater obstacles.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’m a stubborn optimist, but adaptable. Over the summer of 2020, as our collective attention moved from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing political divide, marketing jewelry felt tone-deaf to me. I pulled back to focus on how I wanted to show up and support the issues that matter to me. That’s how our VOTE necklace came to be… I noticed a bunch of VOTE-themed tees on Instagram but nothing that you’d want to wear all day, every day, like our jewelry designs. I played with swapping V-O-T-E in place of sorority letters on one of our designs and loved the look. I also recognized the potential to raise some real money for an organization I love, When We All Vote (WWAV), which has a simple, non-partisan mission of increasing voter participation. We finalized the design, impatiently waited for our workshop to reopen, shot socially-distant photos, and launched our VOTE necklace in June. It gained immediate traction and WWAV reached out to see if we would be an official partner, and we gladly accepted. In a lucky break Michelle Obama wore a(nother designer’s) VOTE necklace for her DNC speech. Of course, I wished she’d been wearing our design, but it was a perfect example of a rising tide lifting all of the boats as Google searches for “gold vote necklaces” surged. I was thrilled to raise a lot of money to support WWAV’s work and it’s my favorite piece yet.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We’re not over the hump, but business is picking up, with our licensed sorority jewelry leading sales. Some background: I launched mazi + zo as a sorority jewelry brand in 2019, and then we expanded our collection to bring our aesthetic to a broader audience, based on customer feedback. Now we offer a range of dainty stud earrings and winning charm necklaces for everyone; the dirty martini, aviator sunnies, and 420 are bestsellers and our horoscope and initial necklaces are gaining traction, too. But sorority has been consistent with very little attention, so I’m focusing on that niche in 2021. It feels a little like I’m reversing course, but I’m looking at it as leaning in where things are working, and I’ll get back to testing broader marketing initiatives when it makes sense.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
When I transitioned mazi + zo from a sorority jewelry brand to a brand for everyone, I asked myself this exact question. Why should anyone care about another woman-led minimalist jewelry company? Discussing my unique value prop dilemma with a marketing genius friend, I referred to the jewelry look I was wearing as “basic, everyday jewelry” and with genuine astonishment, Shana responded, “You’re wearing 7 earrings and 3 necklaces. That is *not* basic and I’d never be able to put that together.” That was an “a ha!” moment: I recognized that our deceptively simple design aesthetic makes layering and stacking jewelry accessible to customers who are intimidated by typical over-styled jewelry shots on Instagram. mazi + zo jewelry can be layered in just about any combination and still looks considered and chic. We want our customers to feel confident wearing a single piece or piling it on.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Counterintuitively, scheduling *everything* helps me relax: At the end of each workday, I plot the next day’s activities on an actual calendar (fueled by a prioritized list). Adding a task with a time block assures there’s enough time to focus on my top priorities, and that includes personal stuff like working out and spending time with my favorite people and animals (i.e., the things that help me maintain perspective and avoid burnout.) If the day starts looking too tight, I juggle time blocks to stay focused on what’s important. The key is to block out time for informal-but-still-required stuff like post office drops and doing dishes (so many dishes!) Putting everything on the calendar highlights the tradeoffs I make when I deviate from the plan to catch up with a friend or choosing to make an elaborate lunch. I try to add a little slush for those unexpected opportunities as well as inevitable glitches (like subway delays or running out of shipping labels when they’re not stocked anywhere handy,) but I often need to fully revise my calendar midday. This process ensures that I’m never surprised by what *didn’t* get done and also helps me unwind at night, knowing I have a plan to jump right back in the next day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I volunteer with Defy Ventures to coach incarcerated entrepreneurs-in-training in a rigorous “CEO of Your New Life” program. Watching the guys at Wallkill Correctional Facility develop business ideas, brave it through a pitch competition, and ultimately cross the stage to receive a certificate from Baylor University was a highlight. I look forward to returning to in-person programming once COVID-19 is under control, and even more so to putting an end to the crisis of mass incarceration.
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.
- First times are hard — Thanks to my aunt and Malcolm Gladwell, I feel comfortable trying new things, but it’s still really hard the first time. mazi + zo’s road to market wasn’t as smooth and easy as our vision for the collection. When we developed our climber earring, we worked through at least six designs and each round of sampling took 5–7 days. For a digital entrepreneur like me, the wait time between cycles was excruciating! But since that first time, we’ve never required more than three iterations, and we usually get it right on the first pass. Brene Brown’s recent podcast on FFTs (you’ll get it) is on-point for entrepreneurs.
- Seemingly small decisions can have outsized impact — When I chose to use round packaging for mazi + zo, I didn’t consider how other elements would be affected. Round tins require round jewelry mounting cards, which aren’t standard. That led to custom ordering, extra costs, and additional lead time. If we’re ever caught short, I can’t substitute with something off the shelf. Basically, I complicated my operations (without realizing it.) Happily, our customers are “obsessed with” our packaging and I love seeing them post pix of the tins on social media. In hindsight, would I do things differently? Not necessarily, but I would have preferred to have a full understanding of the cost implications at the time I made the decision. By the way, I also had adorable round polishing cloths (again, not standard) made to ship with each order. We hope the cloths make customers feel like they got a little something extra and are also a subliminal reminder that mazi + zo is quality jewelry that’s worth taking care of.
- Marketing is everything — Daniel Kennedy-Martin, our brilliant designer, comes up with undeniably beautiful jewelry that our customers adore, so I sort of assumed that every sale would lead to 10 “where did you get that necklace/those earrings?” sales. “If you build it, they will come,” right? Nope. I spend at least 70% of my time learning how to reach our customers through various channels when I’d much rather be creating with Dan. And while we haven’t yet broken through to the awareness level mazi + zo deserves, I recognize these are early days and I plan to continue prioritizing marketing ahead of new designs.
- Don’t sell your products short — We sell jewelry that’s handcrafted in NYC, using best-in-class sustainable gold and silver. That doesn’t come cheap. But when I launched, I wanted to make every piece as affordable as possible and started out with unrealistically low prices (and margins.) And that was before precious metal prices went through the roof. By early 2020, I knew prices had to increase and was concerned that repeat customers would feel like we’d done some kind of bait and switch. Turns out, customers who value original design, ethical sourcing, and paying fairly for skilled labor understand that it will cost a little more and conversion rates weren’t at all affected by price increases. In fact, I might argue that we make it easier for customers to understand our high-quality standards by pricing accordingly. I’m still maniacal about providing value and we’re still much less expensive than a typical jewelry store or the direct-to-consumer companies that claim to have best pricing, but our products aren’t cheap, and I won’t undervalue them again.
- Be ready to change course, but not values — I’m a planner and nothing makes me happier than following through on a well-thought-out strategy. But when circumstances change, pivoting quickly is the smarter move and I had to get comfortable with that. I evaluate my game plan often and respond, whether that’s restructuring the day’s calendar or shifting my marketing spend. Ultimately, mazi + zo may look different from my original vision, but I will maintain our commitment to quality and value.
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?
2020 taught me the “marketing is everything” lesson and I’ve become more open to testing some new distribution channels and ideas that I might not have considered if all had gone according to the original plan.
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 don’t agree that one needs to make a mistake to truly absorb a lesson. If we can learn from the successes of others, why not the mistakes? I’ve made plenty of mistakes with this business and others, but most of those mistakes are original to me. On the other hand, there are lessons we’re all aware of like “don’t take everything personally” that I’m not sure I’ll ever absorb, despite experiencing it on repeat!
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 love the principle of “leave everything better than you found it” because it’s easy to follow in small, tactical ways (“leave the kitchen better than you found it”) and inspiring AF when you think big (“leave the planet better than you found it.”)
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow>> @maziandzo on IG