Well Made

Ep. 39 Practicing the Narrative with Maria Thomas

April 10, 2018 · RSS · Apple Podcasts

“Storytelling doesn't happen just because you uncover an interesting story.”

Maria Thomas has 20 years of tech industry experience. From Amazon to NPR to SmartThings, if there’s one through line in Maria’s career, it’s having the curiosity and vision to help brands get off the ground at an early stage. She’s a seasoned consumer internet pro who experienced the evolution from Web 1.0 to its current state, navigating brands through good and bad times.

After leaving a career in finance, she joined Amazon in the late 90s when they only sold books, music, and video, experiencing the dot-com bubble first hand. She went on to grow NPR’s digital media platform and then as CEO of Etsy she shepherd the business through a period of high growth amidst the 2008 economic crash. As the Chief Consumer Officer of SmartThings, she was at the forefront when they got acquired.

On this episode, Maria talks to Stephan about the value of a brand narrative, preparation, and seeing the potential in promising brands. Full transcript below. 

You can follow Maria on Twitter.

Also mentioned on the show:


Stephan Ango: You're listening to Well Made a podcast from Lumi about the future of ecommerce. I'm your host, Stephan Ango. Maria Thomas, welcome to the show.

Maria Thomas: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Stephan: You just said a second ago before we started recording, you're 100 percent Greek. What? Hiding behind the Maria Thomas' name. How did that happen?

Maria: A short name from what would have been Tomadakis in English.

Stephan: Oh, interesting. When did that change happen?

Maria: That happened in my father's time. Actually not by him but by his brother.

Stephan: Oh really? That's fascinating. So that was before you were born?

Maria: Well before I was born. Yeah.

Stephan: That's interesting. So, let's just start looking at your biography. It's just such an incredible wealth of different companies and positions and industries that you've worked in. When you describe what you do and your background, where do you start?

Maria: I usually start by saying I'm a business person by education, by experience, and maybe most importantly sort of by DNA. I love business. I think of business as my sport. I very much enjoy trying to make them tick as an operator and then as a student of business trying to understand lessons and case studies. So I usually start by saying I'm a business person, but that has been applied, as you mentioned, in many different environments, larger companies, smaller companies, private, public, for profit, non for profit.

Stephan: So, you've been in the tech industry and I know that you've, just to give people an idea, you've been at Amazon, at Etsy, at Smart Things. Lately, you've been working with the board of a few different companies control for, what's the other one I'm forgetting?

Maria: Spoonflower and then McClatchy, which is a media company.

Stephan: But where did it all start for you? How did you get involved in the tech industry? What was the first thing?

Maria: Well, I got involved in the late nineties and I was working at the time for an arm of The World Bank of all things. So I had started my career in finance and I was working in Washington at this place called the IFC, International Finance Corporation. And just out of personal interest, I had gotten very enraptured with what was happening at the time with eBay and Amazon and all of those early commercial internet companies. And I was really originally kind of interested in how they were going public. How was it possible that a two year old company that nobody really understood the business model of was raising money in the public market. And that's how the door through which I came. But once I started studying particularly Amazon, I just became fascinated. Really. It captured my attention. I became convinced that it was going to change the world. And so I basically raised my hand at a time when Amazon was starting to grow rapidly and said, I'd like to work for you. And they said, come on out to Seattle.

Stephan: And this was the late nineties. This was right around the time of the big web, one point oh bubble.

Maria: Yes. It wasn't quite the height of the bubble. It was on the way up. So I had the experience during my almost three years at Amazon of going all the way up to the top of the bubble, experiencing the bubble bursting and then coming back down.

Stephan: I mean give some context for people because I think there's a lot of people who are listening to us who were kids at that time. They didn't have a chance to really understand what that was like.

Maria: Yeah. First of all, it was a thrilling and exciting time. I mean, I really remember it vividly, although it's coming up on 20 years almost. I remember it because I was coming from such a different environment. I was coming from a large multilateral institution based in Washington that was financing projects all over the world and it was kind of a formal environment and very clear rules of engagement. And I got to Amazon. I remember thinking there are no rules. It's all about just trying to figure it out. And I found that thrilling. I think I was around, I don't remember precisely what employee number I was. The company was already a public company, so it wasn't tiny when I got there, it was almost four years in. I think it was somewhere in the 1500-ish range. And when I arrived it was books, music and video only. And I worked on the team that was helping to build out consumer electronics and that was kind of a big deal at the time, even though it seems like another category expansion wouldn't have been that big of a deal, but actually back at that time, Amazon wasn't nearly as sophisticated with warehousing, logistics and that side of the business. So the big challenge for consumer electronics was trying to create the processes by which we could receive inventory that was not as homogeneous in shape and size as books, music and video are.

Stephan: Right, I mean at that time people were starting to probably get into LCD TV's and that kind of stuff.

Maria: You're exactly right.

Stephan: It's a whole different category of thing that you have to ship.

Maria: Another big category which I worked on a lot was digital cameras, digital videography, and so that was just around the time around year 2000 when mass consumers were shifting from film to digital. And so it was a big thing for Amazon to try to figure out which brands, which products, not only how to receive and warehouse them, but how to explain it to the consumer.

Stephan: And also I think it's worth reminding people that at that time people didn't just put their credit card into a website willy nilly and spending thousands of dollars on a piece of electronics was a little bit more of a barrier than it is today.

Maria: Absolutely. In fact, sometimes when I'm giving a talk that has slides, I will capture a screenshot from the wayback machine around the time that I started at Amazon. And right on the homepage there's language that actually says something to the effect of: Amazon.com is safe. Don't worry about putting your credit card online. And so even in 1999, Amazon felt as though it had to have that language on the website. I often use that example as something to remind people that when you're trying to introduce a new product to the market or trying to change consumer behavior, it's hard and you can't underestimate how long it takes or how powerful a barrier fear can be. I also use it on the flip side to say something positive, which is, it took however long it took for people to trust putting their credit card online and now we just put our credit cards everywhere and think of it as nothing. We just store the information and we're so far past that hurdle that we get irritated if we can't do it easily.

Stephan: Yeah. I mean the opposite becomes true when you have the big leaks of data and all that kind of stuff that occurred. You know, maybe that could be a dangerous thing at the time. So, Amazon survived the bubble. I mean, it went through a big dip in terms of its stock price and everything. But were there things that you can remember about the culture of Amazon or was it the business model or something that allowed it to survive through that period of time? And can you describe for people what happened? What was the bubble?

Maria: Yeah, well the bubble was that the stock market had, broadly speaking, become overheated and within the tech sector in particular and with a lot of consumer internet companies. Companies had gotten overvalued. And basically there was a flight to quality, to use a phrase of art in finance. Flight to quality means people exit from things they perceived to be risky and all of a sudden what was sexy is deemed to be risky. And so there was a crashing down. I think with Amazon, the company survived for several reasons. I mean financially it survived because it was already a public company. It had raised capital both in the primary IPO and then secondarily, and so they had cash in the bank and it wasn't as though they needed to raise another round of venture capital and all of a sudden the venture capital was drying up. So the company had cash in the bank. It was already even though we're talking about a lot of the risks and how it was early days, I mean, the fact is people were shopping on Amazon and so there was incoming revenue as well. Beyond the finance aspects of the company and why it survived. I think another big reason is that Jeff Bezos is a founder and leader, had from the very beginning, even during the run up to the bubble was always very clear about what he thought Amazon was or what it was that he had set out to build. And I remember all hands meetings as they got larger and larger that he was very much always talking about the same things that he talks about today. Long term thinking, don't be to the employees, I'm paraphrasing, but essentially don't get consumed with the stock price fluctuations from one day to the next or one month to the next, that what we were building was something for the long term and even today he still talks about the importance of long-term thinking, the importance of being misunderstood. And he was talking about all of that 20 years ago, which is remarkable.

Stephan: Were there things that you can remember about the way that the structure of the company itself, like enabled your group to thrive? Because that's something that I think a lot of companies struggle with. Once you reach a certain size, how do you enable- They're trying to do something pretty radical, which is how do we sell electronics online? What was that like? What was building that like?

Maria: First I'll just caveat and say, I know the company is so totally different today that whoever might be listening to this that remembers early stories might have other memories too. But the things that I remember were that consumer electronics was an important vertical to get right because, like I said before, it was the first non media vertical and so there were lots of points of differentiation. At the same time though, there were lessons that had been learned from the three stores that already existed, books, music, music and video. And so in some respects there was a little bit of a playbook for it. There was a customer database and so we had the ability even then to do email marketing and like the early forms of digital marketing. But what I remember distinctly and I think this isn't true at Amazon today, is Amazon had centralized both design and engineering. And so I was on the product side at the time and we sort of owned product which included not just the user experience of the store, but also all of the assortment and developing the relationships with the vendors. And then marketing who were we going after in this store and how were we going to talk to them? And then we relied on these centralized resources for a design and development and that worked at the time. I don't know for how long that worked after the launch of consumer electronics because things started to grow quickly after that and store started to spin out fairly quickly after that. Amazon may have taken some of that early org structure from Microsoft of all places. There was a time at Amazon when Amazon was hiring a lot of people from Microsoft and some of those early titles came over like program manager and things like that.

Stephan: So what made you decide to leave Amazon? It seemed like one of the most exciting times to be there.

Maria: It was. And I really enjoyed Seattle. I had never lived on the west coast before that. And I was enjoying myself. Really, I left only because I got an opportunity that I thought I couldn't say no to and didn't want to say no to. And that was to lead the digital effort at NPR back in Washington DC against all odds. NPR had played an important role in my life, sort of during college and post college and I looked at it as a national treasure of sorts. I thought that at the time it was late 2001 and I kind of looked at what was going on for public radio online and it was really not very good. I thought it deserved so much more and I thought it was a great opportunity really. I mean from a professional and career perspective it was an opportunity to take this big beloved brand and try to figure out what it means to have radio on the Internet. You have to think back, this was before mobile, before social. It wasn't really even broadband mass penetration at that time.

Stephan: YouTube. I'm trying to think what kind of audio was like on the Internet at that time even.

Maria: It was a real network.

Stephan: The streaming technology was just so primitive at the time.

Maria: It's very primitive and I don't remember precisely when broadband penetration in America hit absolute peak, but I don't think it was 2001. So, NPR was very early into archiving audio online even though a lot of people actually couldn't really access it. And then what came later of course is that now NPR benefits from the fact that it's-

Stephan: The entire archive is online.

Maria: Well not the entire archive, but going back to about the mid to late nineties it's online. When I joined I was really interested in the history of NPR and how it came into being, but I was also interested in the fact that throughout it's life really almost from the beginning it had taken seriously. In part because it was publicly mandated to do so, but it had taken seriously creating an archive and that they were mostly transcripts that were done the old fashioned way of sending out the audio and then a week later you'd get back a perfect transcript. But because of that they had librarians on staff. And that turned out to be really helpful to my team because there were people who had worked for NPR for a long time who understood data structures and who understood taxonomies. That became a really, probably one of the biggest and most important contributions from my team at the time was to really think through not only what was the product going to be that was also a big one, but also how are we going to organize it. Because on radio, the radio producers, not the audience, but the radio producers associate with shows. And so I would say show is the product, but in digital formats really story is more important than show. And so we really got into this mode of thinking about from a digital architecture perspective, story as the atom with the metadata around the story, which then led to the creation of products in the online world that didn't exist on radio. So imagine as an example, somebody reviewing a book on NPR, well that's part of a show, fresh air, whatever. But in the online world, we can break that out to the singular book review as the story and then put the data around it. Who's the author? What show was it on, what's the topic of the book, the genre, whatever. Then we can create a podcast that's, you only want to hear the book reviews from NPR. Okay, here it is all in one. The data structure actually was an enabler of product development in a way. And the fact that there were people in the building who had a history of thinking like that was very helpful.

Stephan: Yeah, I mean, that's what I was talking about when I was thinking of the concept of playlists. I think the show that I was listening to a lot at the time was all things considered and that one was always broken up into all its separate segments and stories. If you want it to snack on various things or look, listen back to the past five days of archives, but just pick out the stories that you wanted to hear. That's way more powerful than just blocks of 45 minute content.

Maria: Exactly. We ended up creating a lot of trying, not everything worked, but we ended up trying a lot of different snacks as you call them. Including one of the more popular things was people always wanted to know what the music was between the segments on a show, like All Things Considered and so people would always write in and ask: What was that song, etcetera. And that was actually the genesis of something called All Songs Considered, which is part of NPR music now, is a very popular online, only digital only. It's a podcast now. It's a program you can listen to streaming online. And the guy who made that, Bob Boilan, has gone on to do many wonderful things within NPR music.

Stephan: So taxonomy makes me think of Etsy, which was your next big gig, right? I mean, that is one of the biggest taxonomy problems that anyone could ever have to solve, right?

Maria: You're not kidding.

Stephan: Trying to organize everything handmade. Tell me about joining Etsy at that time. What was that like? That was the early, early days of Etsy.

Maria: It was. By the way, before I get into how joined. The one person I brought from NPR to Etsy was in fact a librarian.

Stephan: Makes Sense. I mean, I could talk all day about taxonomy that makes a lot of sense to me.

Maria: But you're right to point that out because both are very long tail environments of a lot of different types of content in the case of NPR and items in the case of Etsy. Little bit easier at NPR in that we did develop a structure. I joined Etsy in early '08. The company was two and a half years old at the time. There were three founders at Etsy. Two technologists and one kind of idea/designer. I originally joined actually as CEO of the company and I was only there for a few weeks when the founder, the designer founder who had been CEO, asked if I wanted to be CEO. Looking back on it we sort of took it somewhat informally, but we were both on the board at the time and it seemed like a good idea because he was more interested in being on the product and design side and I enjoyed all the other aspects of running the business. So we made the switch and I became CEO. The business model was as it is today. So it was a good idea from the get-go. And what was needed was less about inventing around the business model and more about, I would say at the time, a few big things. One, the technical platform was not stable. We were having a lot of problems through the first half of 2008 and really into almost the end of 2008. A lot of stability problems, a lot of downtime, outages, things that are highly unacceptable when you're running a platform, hosting other people's businesses. So there were a lot of efforts to be put into really getting the right team and a place to stabilize the platform and to set in place a foundation that we could build upon. Another big one was clarifying the brand. When I arrived there were probably roughly 60, 65 people in the company. I sat down with each person, talked to them for a little while. And at the end of all of that I realized we were almost three different visions of what the company was all about, ranging from it's all about the artisans and crafts people and celebrating art and craft, that was for some people. Others thought this is all about women, empowerment of women. Really trying to give women a platform for making a living. And then a third one was a little broader of independent production, right? Sort of stick it to the man type of stuff. And so I really wanted to try to work through the clarification of the brand and get sort of the language of the brand that we could all align around internally. This wasn't for external consumption. We spent a lot of time on that and I think that was helpful at the time to really put that in place so that when we were presenting Etsy to the world that it was a more consistent experience. That was another big bucket. And then there was finance bucket. I mean company had raised money and it wasn't in need of raising more money at the time. But of course you'll remember the second crash happened in 2008. That was scary.

Stephan: That was not just the tech industry, that was everyone.

Maria: That was much broader of course, because it was stimulated by the housing industry and the collapse of Lehman Brothers and all of that. And so there's a famous presentation that had been circulated by the venture capital firms Sequoia at the time, that basically said-

Stephan: RIP good days or something, wasn't it something like that?

Maria: Something like that. Exactly, exactly. It was like hoard your cash. You're not going to be able to raise capital for a long time so figure it out. Etsy, fortunately, had cash but we weren't profitable at the time. And so from that point and through 2009, I really worked hard to try to make the company profitable so that we wouldn't have to raise more money and we did become profitable in 2009. After I left in '10 the company chose to raise more money after that. But during that time I was really working and trying to focus on getting the company profitable with what we had.

Stephan: But I think the business, and this is just purely from the outside, but the business model of Etsy seems like it would be a little bit stronger and more resilient during a recession because it's trying to empower more of a bottom up. People need to make money during that period of time.

Maria: It's a great observation that you've made. It's a great observation and it is a little bit counter-cyclical you're right. It was a great time for sellers who are makers who might not have otherwise taken the time to think about a platform like Etsy to think about it. I think it was also a good time to talk about the importance of meaningful human connection. It was just a time of disillusionment, a time of big not working and that's still part of Etsy's message. But I think it was a good time to emphasize, buy things from real people, making things and have a more personal, more meaningful shopping experience.

Stephan: It sounds like you had a lot on your plate in terms of operationally keeping the website up, getting the finances and in a good place. But was there anything you were able to bring over from NPR, Amazon, in terms of whether it's product development or anything else that you felt like got infused into Etsy during that time?

Maria: Yes. From Amazon, one of the things that I took away that's pretty tactical, but what's remarkable for Amazon is that right from the get-go, Amazon had instrumented the site for metrics gathering. Right from the get-go. I mean if you look even at the url structures of the early days, they were all meta tagged every single piece of the site. And we looked at that information daily, hourly, whatever, and all of that was in a data warehouse that at the time I remember being able to access it as an employee from the intranet. And of course, nothing like that existed at Etsy. It was almost the polar opposite. Etsy had chosen to build originally on a postgres database and I think there was one postgres data guy who was on the west coast and the company was in New York. And so anytime you wanted to get a query or extract data as a nontechnical person, it was like, where's CB? CB by the way, if you're listening, thank you for staying at Etsy all these years. One of the things I took away from Amazon was the importance of being able to instrument the site and set up a structure for access to data that actually took well beyond the time that I was leading the company, but it did happen. And I think today that's actually probably a strength for Etsy. What I was able to do is I think instill into the early culture that focus on ecommerce being such a pattern business and the importance of looking at those patterns and understanding them and what they mean for the business. And so I think I brought, you know, shown a very important spotlight on that.

Stephan: I feel like that's something that every young business needs to hear somehow at some point because you're only going to improve what you can measure. I know that today you're helping all kinds of businesses and startups, that must be something that you come back to quite a lot.

Maria: Absolutely. I think that it's a different world today and certainly startups that are founded by technical founders or technologists will maybe this will come a little bit more naturally. There's so many easy plugin layers to use to instrument the site. You don't have to do it all by hand.

Stephan: But I think sometimes it's hard to know what to measure. What you're KPI or what is the thing that- Some obvious ones are oftentimes just like number of users or revenue. But I find that often businesses that are really functioning choose something that is very unique to the way that they operate. Like I think for Airbnb it's like number nights booked per user or something like that. That was really what they wanted to measure. Or maybe for YouTube, it's like how many hours of streaming per user or something like that. Finding the right thing and deciding on it can be kind of challenging.

Maria: Yeah, it's another great observation you're making. So my point was that the tools are a lot easier and more plentiful, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still hard and really important to for any early management team to really think through what is the key driver or drivers of the business and how do we think about that, how do we measure it? And also the difference between a KPI and a goal. Right?

Stephan: Well, I explain that a little bit for people.

Maria: Well the just quick definitionally the KPI is the measurement of the outcome that you're trying to achieve.

Stephan: Key Performance Indicator.

Maria: Key Performance Indicator, sorry. And getting to the numbers, not the goal. The goal is something that's usually more qualitative, perhaps more long term, but it's important I think to have a narrative of where it is that you're trying to get to over a period of time and articulate that.

Stephan: But generally what are you trying to do? What's the philosophical direction and then how do you measure that in number terms? Is that what you're saying?

Maria: Yes. Thank you for translating.

Stephan: How do you convert like a philosophy into a metric that can be measured because like a philosophy or an idea that you have as a business is not necessarily obvious as a metric?

Maria: No, no, no, you're correct. I mean, I don't think that it's the philosophy so much that needs to be quantified. I think having a philosophy which you might say is codified in values is very important. You know, the kind of organization that you want to be, the interactions and behaviors that you value or don't value, that's really important. But more from the drivers of your business and what are the outcomes. So use Etsy for example, we really just dissected what's driving the business and knowing that for us at the time there were a couple of important goals. One of them was to drive the top line and that's measured by gross merchandise sales, right? Because of the stage of the business, it was important to really grow that top line and gross merchandise sales is a function, not just of the number of actual sales, but we want to break it down a little bit further and say, okay, how many customers do we have in a month? Does one customer only buy one time in a month, or do we have one customer buying multiple times in a month? So it's frequency of sale, it's the average cart size, it's the number of customers that you have, and all of those are components of that GMS number.

Stephan: With Etsy in particular you have a marketplace, so you have two customers sort of. You have to make the merchants happy, the people who are selling their products on the platform, and then you have to make the buyer's happy. So that that metric tries to sort of accommodate both of those things because in theory, if the GMS or GMV or this big number is increasing, in theory, it's increasing for both.

Maria: That's right. And in that particular case, GMS gross merchandise sales, GMV, gross merchandise value often used interchangeably, in that particular case that's important for both sides of the marketplace, right? In general, you could say more GMS means sellers are selling more, so that's good and it's good for the company because buyers are buying more. But of course on the seller side, I mean there's a whole other set of metrics that one would want to look at because that number in the aggregate is not nuanced enough to really give you a sort of good picture of what's going on with sellers overall.

Stephan: So you were with American Express for a little bit after that?

Maria: Yeah, that was very brief. That was a-

Stephan: There was a French startup in the French ecosystem that was trying to move to the US.

Maria: These guys, there were a handful of founders of Vente-Privee and they were basically doing this business in the offline world before they brought it online. And so they were longtime merchants, long time really hardcore retail guys. And the model I think works very well in France in part because as you would probably know better than I, the retail environment there is very different than it is here. There are fewer big box national stores. It's a little bit like it was here decades ago where there's only sales at certain times.

Stephan: Yeah, there's only twice a year mandated by the government, a time when you can actually go on sale, which is interesting.

Maria: Right. And so here in the United States, I mean shopping is our sport, right? Everything's always on sale and we have all these off price outlets like Tj Maxx or Nordstrom Rack. So long story short, AMEX got into a joint venture with Vente-Privee. The idea was they were going to bring Vente-Privee's models to the US and tap into the American Express database of people who are kind of higher net worth people who might be interested in becoming members of Vente-Privee. I was sort of intrigued by this idea mainly because I really respect American Express as a company and I respect especially their marketing efforts. And so I was kind of keen to learn more about it and they were trying to recruit me to be the CEO of that venture, but once I understood what was going on and sort of what the business was going to be and what Vente-Privee's model was, I wasn't interested in doing it full time.

Stephan: Did it become anything, did they bring it to the states? Did it open up?

Maria: They did. For six months I helped them kind of move it out of being an idea and into being a reality and help hire people and get some of the initial arrangements in place for a 3PL and so forth. And they launched it in late 2011. It lasted for three years. And then they shut it down.

Stephan: What was it called?

Maria: It was called Vente-Privee USA.

Stephan: Oh boy. Probably not a great name.

Maria: No, it wasn't a great day and nobody could pronounce it. And you know, Americans don't know that even means private sale. There were a lot of issues. I think there's a lot of lessons for anybody listening who wants to take away lessons from that example. There are many, just because you pioneer model in one part of the world doesn't mean it's going to translate to another part of the world and in fact there were many copycats at that time in the United States, I mean it's not just Guilt, it was Rue La La or Look which was acquired by Nordstrom. Amazon had jumped into the game with My Habit. There were others ideally, which eventually got sold and I think shut down and so there was a lot of competition for consumers and also a lot of competition for the merchandise to be put through that model. Another big lesson is if you're going to get into a joint venture, don't make it 50-50 because you know, then you're at a board where it's 50-50. Who makes a decision?

Stephan: Yeah. Yeah. The incentives are not really aligned properly. Well I wonder. It's interesting because it seems like that business model hasn't really survived to this day. I wonder why? I mean, Guilt became a really quite large company for a while there.

Maria: It did and Guilt ultimately sold for $250-million to Hudson Bay Company, department store, owner of department stores. Which you know, when you look at it over the arc of its life. It's a really interesting story because I think they sold for less than the total amount of venture capital that they raised and certainly you know, their star was less bright at the time they sold than it was at the height of popularity of that model. My feeling is that the model became popular because it was a little bit gimmicky at the time. It played on the scarcity and it played on this idea of membership and maybe early on there was some truth to the idea that there was merchandise that you would find at Guilt or Rue La La that you couldn't find elsewhere and at a really good price. But the reality is, I think in the United States there's a lot of off price channels already. I mentioned Tj Maxx and others and so competing for that merchandise to buy specialized merchandise at a good price that nobody else has. It's just difficult and that's why you saw Guilt, I think expanding into multiple categories and trying to sell more things.

Stephan: I think Groupon was also big at that time and it didn't exactly have the same proposition but sort of in an indie kind of event in physical space. A world where you could go to a restaurant or do a thing and I mean they're still around, but I guess in the world of fashion you have other problems too, which is inventory and cash flow, which is a big challenge.

Maria: Your memory's great on that because you're right. Not only was Groupon around but also there was another competitor in that space called LivingSocial which ultimately got bought for pennies on the dollar by Groupon. But the reason that's interesting to bring up is because you know, thinking about these things from a consumer perspective, we're all in the startup world and we remember all these stories and all these companies. But if you're sort of an ordinary consumer and you're not in this world, it's a lot of things to try to remember why you should be buying. What's the difference between an off price fashion retailer in a company offering discounts? In the consumer's head it's sort of- Even though they're different, it's kind of easy to get them blended by thinking of it all as: Oh, this is where you get good deals. And that's why there was a time, I think even when, if my memory serves correctly, I think Guilt was trying to do a deals business as well for a time.

Stephan: Well, I mean this was still kind of around the height of the economy being in this downturn and slowly coming back up and I think maybe there is something there in terms of if anyone was going to buy anything that was like higher end, they were going to try and get a deal somehow. So maybe that was part of it as well.

Maria: Yeah, again, it's good to remember what's happening macro economically at any time. And we happened to be living now through a pretty long period of robust economics.

Stephan: Yeah. We'll see. So, okay, let's keep going. SmartThings is the next big one, right? Smart Things. I mean, I haven't demoed this to you, but I've got all my lights on like Philips Hue in here. So yeah, it's not exactly a SmartThings power.

Maria: So if I say the keyword everything's going to turn purple pretty soon?

Stephan: Yeah. Don't say the keyword. No, for people who don't know SmartThings, it's a whole panoply now of various products that help smart fire your house. What are some of the products in the SmartThings catalog?

Maria: Well, just briefly what Smart Things is both a product and a platform. So from a product perspective, Smart Things makes a hub and then several sensors, but from a platform perspective, SmartThings works with a variety of products from other manufacturers, which aren't SmartThing. So I just said a whole bunch of things. Let me try to clarify because it's not easy to understand if you're not into it. Basically when we talk about the smart home, the smart home is really different things to different people. The big categories are energy management, the smart thermostats and also sensors on different parts of your house. Another one would be safety and security. And then a third one might be like convenience and peace of mind. Lighting can cut across all of those in one way or the other. So Smart Things was providing a kind of a modular way for people to build whatever it is that they wanted to make smart in their homes. The one piece of the system that was required or is required is what's called a hub right now that exists as a standalone product. It's a small plastic product that looks something like a router about the size of a CD case. It's like the brain of the system and it houses different kinds of low frequency radios that communicate with all of the other sensors in the house. And then the hub also communicates with the cloud where a lot of the processing is done. So from a consumer perspective, the idea would be, control your home with the app that's on your phone.

Stephan: Right. So the company has been acquired by Samsung? That was after you worked there or was it during?

Maria: Yeah. During. So I joined a group of seven founders, one of whom I had known a little bit beforehand because he was living in Washington and they started the company actually in the fall of 2012 on Kickstarter. And they ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign that ended up raising one point $1.2 million. And on the back of that they raised a seed round right at the end of 2012, early 2013. And that's when I joined on the seed round. And I had the role of chief consumer officer, which meant I owned all of the marketing, go to market strategy, all of our ecommerce strategy. How are we going to not only fulfill on the Kickstarter campaign, but actually get this product in the market? How are we going to talk about it, explain it, etcetera? The guys did the Kickstarter campaign in the fall of '12 and the company was acquired remarkably almost exactly two years to the date later by Samsung. I was in the company during that whole period and then I actually worked another year basically for Samsung as we kind of put the brands together and tried to rebrand the product and release it outside of the United States. The product exists today and it's actually gaining popularity. If you go into any Best Buy you'll find a pretty big display of SmartThings. And of course you can buy it on Amazon. And when SmartThings came up and the opportunity came up, it was really exciting to think about something completely different that I didn't really even understand at the time. And it was also kind of a welcome comfort to me to work with someone who I knew and who I thought was a high integrity person. And I thought the role was great for me because really in the beginning it was as much about brand building and thinking through the architecture of the brand. What did we want this thing to be? Because it was complicated, right? It's a product, it's a platform. We have to talk to developers, we have to explain to consumers, we have to talk to retailers. There were other B2B partners that are very interested in the capabilities of SmartThings including insurance companies, unregulated utilities. And so I felt pretty confident from all my other experiences about building a brand and architecting a brand and then figuring out the channels. I don't really think of myself as a CMO, but I really liked talking about brands and I like dissecting brands and then building brands. And then for the go to market piece of it, I think it's about channels and relationships and getting channels off the ground and for ecommerce. For us at the time it was about launching our own site, including in the ecommerce piece, which we built off of what was then called the Spree Commerce Platform, which later got acquired by First Data and now has branched off into something else. And then we also launched with Amazon as a full fledged partner, In Their Home Automation store in 2013.

Stephan: It's also interesting to me that was the beginning- Maybe not the beginning, not the earliest days of smart homes, but it was pretty early compared to what's happened since then because now we have Amazon, Alexa and you know, all of these different tools that have come about that are really taking it to the next level and making it a lot more accessible I think for people to put this stuff in their home compared to 2012. I feel like the ecosystem has developed a lot. It seems like a lot of times you've been part of things at an early stage when the idea is still getting formed and the people need to understand. You're educating a lot of people, not just the consumers but also partners and employees within the company. Is that a challenge that you relish? What are the keys to explaining something the right way to people at that time?

Maria: It is a challenge that I like and I do think it is a sweet spot for me. I've never been a founder but I've been early in a lot of times and I think one of the keys is, first of all understanding it yourself. You can't explain anything well if you don't really understand it. And so I had to work hard to really get Smart Things because that whole industry, the standards behind it, the way in which the product works. Not something that I knew about previously. And so I think working hard and actually studying and trying to practice the narrative. That's something I learned at NPR by the ways, the value of preparation, the value of a narrative. You'll only get there with practice. Even if it's in some kind of negotiation in one on one setting. I try to prepare. Right. I mean, for instance, I saw that you had mentioned that you might ask me about the books I'm reading and I thought, oh my God, I've read a whole bunch of books lately but I'm not going to be able to remember any of the title's. So I wrote them all down.

Stephan: I think we may have cut out that question from a handful of interviews because it often goes like that and it's like the first thing that pops into your head when that question is like complete void for a lot of people. It's like: Yeah, I've been reading a bunch of books. You've got it right there. I have one question. Then we can get to books. What was it like when the acquisition happened? I mean, that must have hit your department pretty hard in terms of like you have a community of people you have to explain things to, you have a brand that you need to merge in, you have all this transitional stuff that occurs. And just in general, everything else that happens at a company when an acquisition happens, what was that like?

Maria: That's a great question. Smart Things was still fairly small when the acquisition happened. I think we were roughly 50 people. The bigger piece was a SmartThings had distinguished itself early on, not only by being early as you mentioned a moment ago, but also by having what I have to credit the founders with, which is this amazing vision of being an open platform for the smart home.

Stephan: Being more neutral. Because all the other companies have a vested interest, whether it's Google or Amazon or Apple or whoever.

Maria: Especially Apple. Apple's whole MO is basically only operating within the Apple system. Google and Amazon now are semi open, right? But Smart Things from the very beginning positioned itself as the open platform for the smart home and I think the founders really understood from the beginning that this idea was only gonna work if the technology supported a lot of different standards and also open to other manufacturers kind of plugging into the platform. And the other big piece they understood was that everybody's idea of a smart home would be different. And so if you figured out a way to use Smart Things that was really clever and you created a "recipe", we didn't call them that, but I'll use that term. If you created a recipe that was really kinda wizbang to work in your house. Well I as a consumer might be interested in also using that recipe if I knew it existed. So for that we needed to have like an open developer platform where people could access the Smart Things foundation and create their own recipes and then share them. And so there was always this longer term idea that we'd almost be like the app store for the smart home. So what was hard about the Samsung acquisition, at least initially was what would this vision be embraced? And I think what has made it at least theoretically a good combination is that Samsung has embraced that. And even as recently as this year's consumer electronic show, Samsung has continues to talk about openness and continues to talk about actually making all Samsung devices and appliances and everything they make that's in the home, which is a lot of stuff including washers, dryers, refrigerators, TV's, to make them all kind of Smart Things ready, if you will. That was sort of the biggest nugget to think through. And Samsung embraced that. And I think one of the reasons why that worked is because the acquisition came through what Samsung calls it's GIC, global innovation center. But since GIC itself isn't really like an operating unit, their interests was to kinda place a bet that they thought would be a long term winner.

Stephan: I think it seems like in the tech world, acquisitions have started to get a little smoother. Oftentimes it felt like things would get acquired and the parent company would try to quickly to sort of change it or incorporated into the main brand. But nowadays it seems like, I think of Instagram in particular having been a very successful transition because as an independent platform, it still seems to have retained a lot of what made it unique early on. I think those types of things are hard to get right. But there seems to be a pattern emerging that can be done. Smart Things seems like one of them.

Maria: Yeah. I think SmartThings seems to be going in a good direction. I mean still kind of early days in the whole industry really. I mean it's still very early innings and as you mentioned, I mean there's been the addition of the voice assistant as kind of a triggering smart home set-up and smart home technology is really potentially a game changer. I don't think it is yet, but it is potentially.

Stephan: Right. Apple's thing just came out two weeks ago, so it's still early days for sure. Well, let's take a look at your list of books. I can tell from here that you've really thought this through. So what have you been reading lately?

Maria: Well, it didn't require that much thought. It just required remembering.

Stephan: Oh, well, okay.

Maria: So I have been reading a lot lately and I also like, I enjoy listening to audio books, so I read and I listened. But I recently read a Theft By Finding, which is David Sedaris' diaries from 1977 to 2000 or 2002 maybe. Hilarious. So if you're a David Sedaris fan or even if you're not a David Sedaris fan, it is great writing. Provides insight into his early life, which is much more difficult than I realized and it's just laugh out loud funny. I really enjoyed it and it's a great one to listen to on Audible, owned by Amazon by the way. A great one to listen on Audible because he narrates. It's wonderful.

Stephan: I'm always looking for good audio books because I find that the quality of the narrator makes a big,big difference.

Maria: Well, another good audio book is called Exit West and the author and narrator is Mohsin Hamid, is the author. I read this book because I heard it recommended at local independent bookstore that I love in DC. It's sort of about the modern day refugee story, but it's told in almost like an allegory. I almost said allegorical, but I wasn't sure if that was a word, so.

Stephan: I think it is. Allegorical is a word, yeah.

Maria: I couldn't quite get that off my tongue quite quickly enough. I just could not turn that off. I mean it was a beautiful story and it really somehow made the experience that we read about and hear about so real. For fun, I read Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere.

Stephan: This is great. Everything you're mentioning, I haven't read has not been in the echo chamber that I'm always a part of.

Maria: There's a novel called Less. It's called Less: a novel by Andrew Greer and I'm not finished with that one yet, but I'm enough way through it. It's very entertaining. It's crisp and humorous, but it's about an author who's about to turn 50 and kind of confronting that. It's not, it's not a typical midlife crisis type of thing. It's very humorous. For fun also, I read Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan. I think that's going to be made into a movie. It's pretty funny.

Stephan: I want to know, how do you find books to read? What kind of reader are you? How does that work?

Maria: I have three go to sources for books and I almost never use anything else. The first one is my mother in law. She's an avid reader. She reads like crazy. I think she's part of five book groups and if she tells me to read something, I read it because she's served me well. NPR, not surprisingly, has a great book section now. Unbelievably deep and more online than what you hear on the radio. And then I live within walking distance in Washington DC to a bookstore called Politics and Prose, which is an independent bookstore and it's kind of iconic in DC. It hosts a lot of authors. Every night there's a reading pretty much. I'll be there three or four times a month listening and I pick up a lot of things there.

Stephan: I think it's so easy for me. There's this app I love called Nuzzle. Do you know Nuzzle?

Maria: I don't know Nuzzle.

Stephan: Nuzzle is pretty cool. It's an app that you basically you log into your twitter and it will look at all the links that people are sharing from people that you follow and sort of combine them into the top hits. Like here's what 20 of your friends are sharing right now. And so it kind of gives you an idea of what the main things people are sharing from your own network.

Maria: That sounds very useful.

Stephan: It's very useful. However, it has the effect of always kind of presenting you whatever everyone is talking about, which is great for kind of staying on top of the news. But I was commenting on Twitter the other day that I want the opposite of that. I want the thing that tells me what nobody else is talking about. Show me a weird thing that only one person said, this is amazing. Because I feel like it's so easy to get sucked into what everybody else is listening to.

Maria: I need to introduce you to my mother in law.

Stephan: Please, maybe she should have like a book recommendation service.

Maria: She should. She's read it all. Well, then I have two business books. I just started reading. It's an old book, but it's called The Smartest Guys in the room and it tells the story of what happened at Enron. I don't know if you know about Enron.

Stephan: Sure.

Maria: Started thinking about all of that sort of recently just because I've been thinking a lot about integrity and public life and also because I've been joining boards and so I've been really wanting to understand companies that didn't work for different reasons. That's a really interesting book so far. I mean it gets into the backgrounds of the people who joined Enron and where they came from and what their values were and what their personal lives were and their leadership style. So that's been good to read. I just finished the biography of John D Rockefeller, which I started reading because one of the startups that I'm working with now called Remote Year, wanted to sort of embrace what's called Rockefeller Habits.

Stephan: I've never heard that. What are they?

Maria: It's basically, I'll try to say it really quickly. It's basically just paying a lot of attention to the details of your business and scorecarding your business in a pretty detailed way. But I didn't really know that was attributable to Rockefeller. And why did it start to be called the Rockefeller Habits? So I wanted to learn about that and he's the guy behind Standard Oil and was a big oil guy in the last century. And it's really instructive to learn about these people because I could talk to you all day long about Jeff Bezos in sort of the respect and admiration that I have for him as a founder and a leader and a business icon of our time. But what will it be like to read about him 50-100 years from now. And so it's interesting to do that for people who lived 100-years ago.

Stephan: I think it's always interesting to look at the past when you think about, you said you're joining boards. You have a lot of influence on the direction of companies in that role. And so you mentioned integrity as one of the things that you're, I'm assuming you're like trying to bring or trying to understand about companies. What are the other things that you've been thinking about? What made you want to go into this area of work, of joining boards? It seems like an interesting choice.

Maria: Well, first of all, I liked that you caught it area of work because-

Stephan: It seems like there's a certain number of people who would take that as like, this is a thing that I want to do.

Maria: It is. And I definitely had this in my mind for a while. I actually started thinking about this more than 10-years ago. I think it actually stemmed from a couple different early influences in my life. My father was a small town lawyer who became a judge. And so we as kids always had sort of this idea instilled in us that service is really important. And that could be civic duty, it could be community service, whatever. But service back and then fast forwarding to my professional life during the time that I was working at part of the World Bank, one of the things that we were trying to do in the area where I worked was to invest in the private sector in emerging markets. And one of the challenges of investing in the private sector in some emerging markets in the 1990's was that it was really hard to understand what was going on in some of these companies. So how do you know if what you're investing in is actually happening? Because the standards of governance in some of these places aren't anything close to what we would expect here. And so I became more acutely aware of the importance of good governance, particularly for publicly traded companies. And so getting back to me being a business person and having this sort of early days of finance, I thought it would be so interesting to take this random walk that I've had and apply these experiences. Kind of roll them all up into some strategic ideas and strategic lessons that I've learned and try to apply them in service of better governance. That's kind of where it's coming from and why I continue to try to study what does make good governance.

Stephan: As we start to wind down here I have a question for you that I didn't prepare you for so I will waffle for a while if you need some time to think about this. But you were recommended as a guest by a friend of the show who was on a previous episode, Sarah Hicks, who is awesome. And you can talk about her if you'd like, but I would like to ask you a question which is, who would you recommend as a future guests? Is there anyone that comes to mind that would fit the theme of Well Made?

Maria: Oh yeah. First of all, I would like to say Sarah Hicks is a wonderful person. She's a co-founder and CEO of a company here based in Santa Monica called Reaction Commerce. There's an earlier episode here on this podcast in which Sharon tells you about that business, but it's a really cool company for anyone listening. It's an open source platform for ecommerce. Very modern in its architecture, very real time in its ability to adapt and bring in analytics and marketing. It's very cool. I'm an advisor to Reaction Commerce and I'll have a lot of time for Sarah Hicks who I had hired as VP of product at Etsy. So yeah, I could think of several people who might be interesting for you. In no particular order. I'll just start naming a couple. There's a guy who I like a lot, who has an incredible mind on my NPR team. His name is Daniel Jacobson. Daniel is basically responsible for just all of the core architecture of NPR digital, very smart, very ahead of the game and eventually left NPR after I did and he's been running a portion of a engineering at Netflix and I think it's-

Stephan: There's some similarities there, but a very different scale.

Maria: And he's just a really smart guy especially around API's and the importance of API's. In fact, he's written a book for O'Reilly about that. So he's a smart guy and kind of a little bit more from the hardcore engineering side of the world. I think there are some early Amazonians who could be really interesting, probably too many to name right now, but I could certainly provide you a list.

Stephan: I'm just thinking this could be a new format for how we bring people on the show. Pat, do like a chain letter like in the old days of email.

Maria: Yeah, that's a great idea. You sort of end up hearing a lot about the same group of people in media, you haven't done that. You've had a lot of interesting guests on your podcasts. There are all these great people, like Sarah and others who-

Stephan: Have been there in the trenches building that stuff. Yeah.

Maria: Done so many interesting things and let's hear from some of those people. So I'd be very happy to give you a long list of people.

Stephan: Okay. Well, we'll let you, the listener know if people came through from the recommendations of Maria Thomas. So people who are looking for more of you, what can they do? They can go find you on twitter?

Maria: I'm pretty active on Twitter and my handle is a Greek word, but it's spelled p like Peter, s like Sam, m o u, and it's psmou and it means, tell me interesting. So I'm pretty active on Twitter @psmou. I don't really write anything long form other than what I write on Twitter. So that's the primary place.

Stephan: Awesome. Well it's been so great to hear all of your insights. Thank you so much.

Maria: Thanks for having me, Stephan.

Stephan: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, if you got something useful out of it, I would love to hear what that was. Consider writing a short review. Could be just a sentence long by going to iTunes and searching for Well Made. I want to hear it all. I want to hear good, bad. I want to hear your constructive criticisms. I am just trying to make this show as useful as possible for you. So tell us what you think that is the very best way that you can support the show. Thanks and see you next time.


You can find this and all future episodes on iTunes, Google Play, and here on the Lumi blog. This episode was edited by Evan Goodchild.

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