Our series “How I became a …” digs into the stories of accomplished and influential people, finding out how they got to where they are in their careers.
When Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis were beginning to build out their kitchens post-grad, they realized that the process was exhausting, time-consuming, and ridiculously expensive. Did they really need six different saucepans, four sizes of cookie sheets, and three stock pots? Using Tishgart’s background as a James Beard award-winning food editor at New York Magazine and Moelis’ background working at startups like Zola and Warby Parker, they decided to create a new way to outfit their kitchens. The first-time entrepreneurs created Great Jones, and the rest is history.
USA TODAY caught up with the startup founders and childhood friends to talk about everything from Justin Bieber and celebrity sightings at the dog park to trusting in the pull of an entrepreneurial spirit and being mindful in every aspect of building a team.
Question: How did you get your start?
Maddy Moelis: I went to business school in undergrad and studied marketing and consumer behavior, and when I graduated I started working at Warby Parker in the very early days. I have since worked at a few other startups, most notably Zola, the wedding registry company, as well. At both Warby and Zola, there was a ton of learning, and people that I met and experiences that I went through helped formulate our opinions on how we built our own direct-to-consumer, e-commerce startup. My previous job experiences were super formative to get me to this point.
Sierra Tishgart: I went to journalism school and worked as a journalist prior to starting Great Jones. I specifically worked at New York Magazine for five years as a food editor, and that really helped in us launching Great Jones because we got to know and ask advice from very talented chefs and cookbook authors, and developed close ties to the culinary world.
Q: What led you to create Great Jones?
Tishgart: Maddy and I have known each other for 20 years (we were childhood friends from summer camp). When I was working as a food editor I started to feel like I wanted to prioritize my own home cooking. But, when I went to go figure out what I needed and why in my own kitchen, it was confusing and overwhelming and prohibitively expensive to get nice things. Maddy had a very similar experience with this, and we had a hunch that we could really modernize the process of outfitting your kitchen. That comes from design, from price points, and from education. I think we were both craving someone to hold our hands through this very important process, which is tied to your health and well-being. We came up with the idea for Great Jones from there.
Q: What does a typical day look like?
Moelis: It is crazy, and I think it’s very different for both of us. Once the day really starts, there’s tons of meetings and conversations and people coming out of the office. So, I try to get here first. I really covet my hour in the morning at my desk, just checking in on emails and thinking about what the day’s going to look like. Once everybody else comes in between 9 and 10 a.m., it’s a lot of meetings, conversations, creative brainstorms, and decision meetings. We’re a really small team – there’s just eight of us – so we’re really often just circling up around each other’s desks, talking about what’s down the pipeline tomorrow and next week. Mostly in the afternoons, Sierra and I have a lot of external meetings as well, whether that’s with vendors or people involved in the brand. We’re taking those calls and going out and about, and for me, toward the end of the day, I like to come back to my desk and look at how the day went on a metric standpoint. (I like to) check what’s going on in the business itself, and try to leave by 7:00 p.m.
Q: What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Tishgart: This started as just Maddy and I, and we felt a lot of vulnerability around making decisions and really learned to trust each other. Now, it’s so exciting that we get to include more people in those decisions and on our team as we build out that team, and (we) get to learn from new people and hear their perspectives. To be specific, we’re launching several new products this year and new designs, and that’s been really exciting. So, getting to see and hear both what our team thinks of our designs and where they’d like to expand as well as what our customers like and think of their designs and what they want to see more of, we now get to include so many more voices and perspectives in all of our decisions. Coming from a place where that really was just us at first, that’s really exciting and grounding.
Q: How do you balance work, life, and such a busy schedule?
Tishgart: It’s hard. We’re definitely very committed to this, and it takes a lot to start a company and make sure it’s running effectively. We both try to do small things and make sure that, along with our team, we’re doing other kinds of activities. A good example is when our whole team got together to celebrate Chinese New Year. We got out of the office, we got to interact with each other as people and not just co-workers, and activities like that really put your headspace in a different light and allow us to connect with each other in a different way. To disconnect, I really like spending time with my dog. I walk and exercise with him, I binge watch a lot of shows, I try to exercise here and there, but it is definitely a chaotic life and it is a challenge to balance it all.
Q: What do you credit your success to?
Moelis: It’s funny, because I’m like, what does success even mean? But, I think that with Great Jones, in particular, and with Sierra and I, a lot of what we’ve worked on and have been some of the stronger parts in this business have been really strong communication. That’s both between us and with our team, and I think keeping that as a core value and tenet of how we grow our company has been really helpful in being successful. Also, one of our core values at Great Jones is knowing what you don’t know and not being afraid to ask for help. Maybe that’s a better answer in terms of just something that we all do very frequently. That’s not just asking for help within our team, but leveraging our networks and people outside of the walls of Great Jones to help us make better and more informed decisions. That’s been a big part of our growth.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Moelis: I wish someone had encouraged me more to trust my intuition. I think that for people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, there’s something there that they can’t ignore that they’re listening to or following. If you’re second-guessing that all the time, it’s really going to get in the way. So, trusting your gut and your intuition and seeing where that takes you would be my advice.
Tishgart: Be really mindful of who you’re surrounding yourself around, and what your team and extended team looks like. Beyond the eight people in our office – all of whom happen to be women – this goes into being really thoughtful about key investors you’re letting into the fold, the vendors that you’re working with, and trying to make sure as much as possible that their values align with yours and that they’re people you respect. (It’s) recognizing that your team goes beyond perhaps the person who’s sitting next to you every day. If you’re making a physical product that team could include people in different countries, really make everyone feel recognized as part of your larger team, and be very considerate when bringing them into the fold.
• What’s your coffee order? Moelis: Large cafe au lait with regular milk
• What’s your favorite book? Moelis: “Give and Take” by Adam Grant, Tishgart: “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson
• Who’s been your biggest mentor? Tishgart: Nic Jammet, who’s one of the founders of Sweetgreen, has definitely been a mentor and adviser to us both. We really admire how he runs a company that’s true to his values and has been able to grow in a way that is smart and sustainable, and clearly has this loyal audience and trust with his customers. He’s also someone who, no matter how busy he is, takes our calls. There’s no question too small for him, and as first-time entrepreneurs, that is invaluable
• What is your favorite song at the moment? Moelis: “Yummy” by Justin Bieber, Tishgart: “River” by Ben Platt
• What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done? Moelis: For my grandpa’s 85th birthday, he took us on a bus tour of his life. So, we basically drove around for a day tracking his life, and he narrated the tour. Tishgart: One time, I took my dog to the dog park and Joel Embiid was there.