Soft skills: The surprising success secret of VarageSale co-Founder

For a taste of how things are changing for founders, consider Tami Zuckerman. May is, after all, Female Founders month. Zuckerman was the guest of Startup Grind Toronto, and she talked about what it’s like to have founded a hot startup.

I’m not going to recite the usual vital statistics. This sort of thing gets far too much attention. Far too little attention is paid to the soft skills side of start ups.

That’s how a female founder with no business background breaks into the male-engineer club and raises $34 million from Sequoia and Lightspeed. And when the inevitable set backs happen, there were layoffs earlier this year, soft skills are just as important.

To build and manage a high-growth company you have to build and manage a team of wildly different skills, experience and goals, and help them unravel the mystery that is market fit. Many, many projects come unglued here.

The fact that Zuckerman was a Kindergarten teacher gets a lot of attention since there is an ignorant perception that teaching is a slack job. (The now-prime minister of Canada was derided during the last election for being a mere teacher. He seems to be doing OK).

Zuckerman believes that her experience as a primary school teacher is key to what she’s accomplished. She taught many primary grades, not just Kindergarten. To teach these grades, Zuckerman says that she had to assess the learning styles of 20, 30 or more rambunctious children and come up with lesson plans that meet the needs of each and the class as a whole.

What works for Kindergarten won’t work in Grade 1. Nor will Grade 1 lesson plans work in Grade 2.

That’s because the brains of primary-school children are very plastic. As a result, the way children process information intellectually and emotionally changes all the time. In fact, the learning process itself guarantees this change will happen. So the plan you start with is not the plan you finish with.

Sounds just like startups.

Zuckerman believes that her teaching experience equipped her to manage the rumpus room that is start up engineers, marketers, VCs and sales people.

All the attention on her previous career as a Kindergarten teacher misses the point that Zuckerman has razor-sharp market insight. She knew that Craigslist, Kijiji and other online marketplaces failed females… and she knew why. She translated that insight into a better solution.

The main reason newspapers are in dire states today is because shopping sites have stolen the classified ad revenue of newspapers. That, along with display ads, financed the reporting staff.

Shopping sites also get a lot of investment because of the trillions of dollars of cash flow spent by households across the world – and that spending is primarily controlled by women. So the male-dominated online marketplaces were vulnerable to disruption by a site that caters to women.

That’s how Zuckerman convinced her developer husband to code up the alpha version of VarageSale.

Women have taken to VarageSale in huge numbers. And unlike Craigslist and Kijiji users, VarageSale users return often. Most mobile and internet sites promise their investors that they will do that, but very, very few do.

It was the combination of the massive potential, the traction, the high level of return visitors and Zuckerman’s ability to build a team that riveted the attention of VCs that made the venture a success. That’s why Sequoia and Lightspeed invested $34 million.

Zuckerman also seems to have convinced male shoppers. At the Startup Grind meetup, almost all the questions from men started with a sheepish, “I hope it’s OK” admission that they bought and sold on VarageSale. To a man, the experience was new and enjoyable.

Geoff Foulds
Geoff Foulds
What fascinates me are the edges. And nowhere are the edges edgier… the stakes higher… than startups. There are plenty of sources of friction, compression and tension among founders and financiers, engineers and marketeers. How do you mesh all the edges so they transmit power even when loads are heavy? That’s what I write about.

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