Marilou McFarlane Shows Us How She Balances Leadership and Life

Working on this post has been really special because I started it right before Marilou, CEO of Edufii,  hired me to join as the COO.  It never got posted because both of us threw everything we had into growing the company.  Our efforts were rewarded this January when we were acquired by Shotzoom. So it seems appropriate and somehow balanced that my reboot of this blog features Marilou. What I can tell you for sure about ML after working with her for a year — is that her words here are 100% authentic and she is absolutely fearless. Collaborating with her was a fantastic experience and she has my unwavering friendship, respect and gratitude.

LZ: Like many of us, you didn’t begin your career at a startup. What made you take the leap?

MM: For many years, I was so happy and so productive in sales at KCBS Radio, and so fortunate with the collaborative, supportive team culture and awesome managers who let me crush my goals, without micromanaging me. I had the flexibility to coach my kids’ soccer teams when they were young – and my managers appreciated it because they supported our community involvement and the bonus was that I got some of my best clients that way. Eventually, our big boss retired, 2 new men came in and dramatically changed our culture overnight.

Soon enough, our team’s morale was horrible, and dampened my spirit so much, that I took an enormous risk and left to start McFarlane Marketing. It was an impulsive move, but many of my best clients followed me, I managed much more of their marketing business including and outside of CBS, and I was profitable from day one. I learned a lot about running a business very quickly.

 LZ: McFarlane Marketing was more of a personal business, and as we both know that can be a great fit when you want to be an involved mom and you have younger kids at home. What made you want to do something even bigger?

MM: I had already been itching to be on more of a team again, definitely was missing that camaraderie and teamwork that I cherished at CBS. My first “entrepreneurial seizure”, as I call it, came from recognizing a big void in a marketplace I really cared about, as a lifelong competitive athlete and as the mom to our two daughters, dedicated teenage athletes of their own. My husband Craig and I were frustrated at the lack of real societal support and resources for young female athletes. There was nothing for girl soccer players available at Soccer.com. Nothing in ESPN Rise Magazine featuring female high school athletes. We wanted to create a brand and community for young female athletes to keep them playing.

So I founded Vivo Girls Sports, raised angel money from friends and family, during the massive recession of 2009, and proceeded to build a team, a business plan, a website, a social media presence. Within six months we generated $100K in revenue from brands very interested in engagement with teenage girls in unique authentic ways and by 2010 we were in the top 1% of all Facebook Fan Pages.

But that’s also when I became aware of the biases against women athletes and women founders. It became clear to me that the investors we attempted to raise capital from didn’t necessarily support young women in sports and weren’t interested in how much money can be made from brands, whose primary target is teenage girls. My perception was that they didn’t really embrace the image of women as strong and powerful, as opposed to simply beautiful and feminine. I’ve always felt that women can be all those things, and that we don’t necessarily all want to wear pink. Our team was adamantly opposed to the “shrink it and pink it” mentality of so many athletic brands at that time.

LZ: So you grew Vivo Girls Sports and you sold it, and then what happened?

MM: I was lured back into the corporate world; it felt like going back to a comfortable, more secure place for me at the time with longtime friends in a business I enjoyed. But once you’ve worked in a fast-paced, super efficient and nimble startup environment, for me it proved to be much less rewarding and I really missed a more entrepreneurial experience.

Luckily, I got connected with SportsBoard – a startup in the sports tech space and I joined them to lead their business development effort. That’s when I discovered my passion for being on the technology side and back in a space I loved – sports and coaching. It all came together there. It was a small, nimble team and we absolutely revolutionized a very important process for coaches in all sports. From there, I learned about Edufii and I was attracted to the opportunity to do a more consumer-facing project.

LZ: What’s it like to come in from outside as a CEO?

MM: At Edufii, I didn’t really ever feel like I was coming in from the outside. When I met the founder, we clicked immediately. His whole mission and vibe is so similar to mine. And working at SportsBoard had prepared me to work with all young guys.

When I started in sports tech, there weren’t many other women around and that’s different. Even just socializing and chatting, guys don’t really do it the same way. Women multi-task and juggle more things in our lives and are used to constant interruptions and prioritizing.

I feel lucky that the team and board at Edufii respect my experience and what I bring to the table. And I deeply value their points of view on things: our team when it comes to even more efficient ways to conduct our business and communicate with customers as well as our lead venture capital investor and board chair who I’ve learned so much from in terms of other “war stories” from his other start-up experiences.

I also know that you just don’t go in and instigate dramatic changes overnight, without team involvement and collaboration to address challenges. Especially as a distributed team, how we communicate internally, how we stay on the same page, becomes even more important.

LZ: Speaking of being a woman, you’ve managed to build an amazing career and be an really engaged mom. How have you made that work?

MM: The best decision I’ve made in my life is to marry my husband. Our marriage is one of the most balanced I’ve ever seen in terms of sharing parenting and chores. He chose to switch careers to follow his own passion and to allow him to spend more time with our kids and be more involved with all aspects of our family. You have to support each other to follow your own passion and grow as individuals, which I think nurtures a strong friendship and bond. I think we’ve done that and hopefully modeled that for our daughters. I never had role models in my life for the kind of relationship we have and I cherish it every day.

LZ: You’ve had multiple leadership roles. What do you feel has made you successful?

MM: Because I had the experience of working with such good leaders early on, I’ve learned the importance of team culture. I think you need to involve everyone on the team in the goals you set for the company and work with people to set goals for themselves.

I think I’m someone who brings positive energy into the room. I think having fun and laughing is important. We get to do something we enjoy every day and while we take our business seriously, we just can’t personally take ourselves that seriously. I think that’s when you do your best. I do have the highest expectations for myself and everyone around me. And I think the team knows that.

I think being a parent and coach helped me learn the importance of telling people they’re doing a good job. And when there’s conflict, we talk about it, we move on. That’s something I really respect in a leader and how I try to be. No walking on eggshells.

One of the tricky things about leadership – especially with startups – is to manage the burden of knowing what to share and what not to share. Part of why you’re in this role is to manage that and determine what is TMI. You never want to lie, but you want the team to feel optimistic and be inspired. It’s an interesting balancing act.

LZ: There’s a lot in the news these days about company culture – especially in tech. One thing that I loved about working with you is that you have an incredibly positive attitude, an optimistic outlook and the highest integrity, even when dealing with pretty extreme challenges. That definitely contributed to the healthy culture at Edufii. How do you think startup leaders can create better cultures?

MM: I think you lead by example. I don’t let other people down and I think it makes them not want to let me down. One of my daughter’s coaches says, “Don’t show up if you’re not going to show up.” It’s in my driven nature to show up every day and in every interaction. If you’re not going to give it your all, why bother?

I think so much of team culture has to do with the personalities of the leadership team. As a leadership team at Edufii, we agreed on hard work AND fun in the office and a casual atmosphere. We want dogs in the office because I think they’re completely therapeutic. I want to make sure everyone takes the time to exercise every day or do whatever lifts their spirits. I feel that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone or anything else. And I think you have to find out what every team member loves to do most, as they will likely succeed if they’re doing what they feel they are best at.

LZ: As a woman startup CEO, do you think the challenges you face are different then if you were a man?

MM: I absolutely do, as there just aren’t that many great role models, especially in the tech world. I am so fortunate to count among my very close friends other women leaders in tech, more experienced than me, who are brilliant with sharing their time and advice. Also, we’re an anomaly with investors which creates real challenges. My thoughtful daughter who is now at Harvard Med School attended a women in business conference there recently and the first thing she texted me was the fact that “2.7% of all venture funding goes to women CEO’s or founders”. How is that acceptable? Do we need a Title IX for business investing? Especially coupled with the reality of how well women-led businesses do, it just makes no sense. The results should speak for themselves. Startup teams with at least one female founder performed 63% better than all male teams. The data also showed that women are present in the top ranks of their ten most valuable companies. (http://www.businessinsider.com/female-founders-outperform-male-peers-2015-7)

LZ: So what do you think needs to happen to get more women into leadership roles – both at startups and in general?

MM: I think woman-to-woman professional relationships are really important. Women mentors have taught me so much. And I give back as a mentor to other young women whenever I can. These are all relationships I cherish. I also think we have to raise our daughters and our sons to believe that girls are just as capable as boys. It’s so important that boys believe it too, and that will make a difference in opportunities for our daughters.

I didn’t have any insight into career options – I just fell into media sales because I became enamored with Ted Turner and what he was building with Turner Broadcasting, CNN, etc. Entrepreneurship is a very different path than scaling the management ranks in a corporate setting.

Honestly, I wish I had discovered my entrepreneurial passion and abilities earlier in my career, because I really enjoy bringing new ideas and technologies to life. That’s the great thing about doing this now; an amazing girlfriend of mine who’s wildly succeeding as a first time tech founder and CEO says she told her investors, look, this is the best time in my career to do this, empty-nest, lots of experience building businesses and interacting with younger adults, desire to make a big contribution to the world… This is our time!

 

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