Maida Swenson-Fortune and Katie Dombrowski want to democratize art. Each the product of an entrepreneurial family, Maida and Katie launched Cureeo based on a shared vision of making the art world accessible to everyone. They jumpstarted their dream in 2012 when Cureeo joined Excelerate Labs‘ (now TechStars) 2012 class of startups. These two haven’t lost steam despite their hectic lives, launching their transparency-focused Buyer’s Guide in 2013 to help everyone understand what makes art worth what it’s worth, in addition to bringing on new art impactors and discovering new artists in Chicago and beyond. Both founders are finishing MBAs at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business: Maida, the CEO and a first time mom to nearly-three-month-old Ella, is just two classes from completion while Katie juggles being a full-time student (graduating this May) with acting as CMO for Cureeo.
We sat down in Cureeo’s workspace at 1871 to glean wisdom from these two founders and distilled our conversation into valuable advice for all entrepreneurs, female or not.
The Urgent v. Important Test
Maida credits becoming a mom with forcing herself to implement an “Is this urgent or is this important?” test. “As a mom,” she said, “you just can’t spend time doing stuff that doesn’t matter.” Whenever she has a laundry list of things to do, she categorizes each item as either urgent or important, both urgent and important, or neither urgent nor important. Then, she crosses off anything that’s neither or only urgent but not important. Any entrepreneur can benefit from her prioritization strategy: “Don’t waste time doing what only seems pressing but doesn’t truly add value to your product.”
Both of these founders agree on the importance of being uncomfortable if you want to be successful. “Generally in life, if you’re not uncomfortable in some way, you’re not pushing yourself enough. Whether you’re working out or starting a business, you should stay uncomfortable,” theorized Maida when asked about the best advice she’s been given. Katie carried this idea over into thinking about product launches and paraphrased how Booth’s Professor Craig Wortmann opened one of her classes: If you’re an entrepreneur, you continually want to work on your product, make it perfect, and make it shine. Don’t do that—you’ll fail. You have no idea how it will do, so stop being comfortabl, and sitting in a self-reinforcing circle. Put it in front of live people. That real feedback will be the best thing that you ever do.” Katie recognized that the team at Cureeo could easily fall into the product perfection trap, but the way out is simple: Put your product out and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. The feedback will be worth it.
Build a Team You Can Trust
Maida realized the importance of the Cureeo team when she was leaving them to give birth to her daughter. Unable to be on email constantly, she knew that the only way she’d be able to have a semblance of maternity leave was if she knew that she could trust the rest of Cureeo to represent the business. Maida left Katie at the helm, crediting an implicit belief in her team and the trust that they all share the same vision and mission, enabling her to step away.
Be Part of a Community
Shared experiences and resources through their networks have been crucial for these two founders, personally and professionally. “Other female founders are so important to me as a new mom running a business. When you’re balancing pumping with meeting with investors and switching into sales mode, it’s so relieving to know that you’re not the only one,” said Maida. She also gave a hat tip to the founders of Excelerate for making the environment one where she wasn’t nervous about telling people she was pregnant and trying to get a company off the ground. Both agreed that working out of 1871 is a huge boon, thanks to the people and resources within the community. Katie gave examples how invaluable it is to be able to bounce site issues off of other e-commerce companies, including MoxieJean, and have access to talented models for landing pages (you might spot Tony Wilkins on the site), as two major pluses of working in the shared space.