If there’s one thing that’s associated with entrepreneurs, it’s passion. Passion can drive an entrepreneur to do all sorts of unpredictable things, including leaving an Ivy League school just one year shy of graduation, on a leave of absence to work on a start-up. That is the scenario that Annie Wang enacted in the mid-2000s, when she joined two other co-founders Stephanie Kaplan and Windsor Hanger, to launch Her Campus. The site, targeted towards young college women, has since then become the Number One destination for that demographic.
In addition to her role as Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, Wang is also Creative Director of the brand. She hopes to finish her Visual and Environmental Studies degree at Harvard one of these days.
When did it first occur to you that it would be a good idea to start Her Campus?
My co-founders and I met while running Freeze, a lifestyle and fashion publication at Harvard, aimed specifically at Harvard College women. When we transitioned it online, we saw a surge in readership from other college women attending other schools around the country. We realized that 1. there was a need for this kind of media at other colleges, too, and that 2. we were passionate about developing a platform that would allow any woman at any college to start and run her own online magazine on her campus. Thus, the idea for Her Campus was born: an online community and publishing platform providing both national content and local content produced on the campus level, and a marketing firm for companies trying to reach college women.
Tell us about yourself.
I started Her Campus with two of my friends from undergrad at Harvard. Since they are both a year older than me, when they graduated and we decided we wanted to run Her Campus full-time, I took a leave of absence from Harvard to pursue Her Campus. So I still have to finish my senior year at Harvard…eventually!
How does a typical day start out for you?
It’s not realistic to start without first tackling the inbox. Because of my particular role at Her Campus as the person who will actually execute any program we run on our site, I typically have a lot of input and feedback to give to my colleagues. Once I’m able to get all the time-sensitive, and what I’ll call “team-sensitive,” tasks out of the way I’m ready to move forward on new ideas and projects on my list.
What was your first job?
My first job, which I held in my freshman and sophomore years at Harvard, was being the Special Projects Assistant in the office of the Harvard University CIO. What I learned was that my web skills – even as basic as they were in those years – were invaluable, highly useful, and a stepping stone to producing more and more interesting work. For example, listing “web design” as an interest on my Facebook page was what got me recruited to be the webmaster of Freeze and led to my creation of the brand new Freeze site and a dozen other websites for other student organizations at Harvard. Later on, my skills and interests in web design put me in a natural position to be an effective CPO for Her Campus.
What’s the best thing about an entrepreneur?
As an artist at heart, my favorite thing to do is create. Being an entrepreneur lets me create all day, every day. To build a business is to create on a very vast and complex scale. I find it extremely fulfilling to envision ideas and actually execute them, and then see the effect they have on the Her Campus product as a whole – that’s not something you get in any other job.
Her Campus is a mammoth brand. What are you most proud of when it comes to the company’s accomplishments?
My proudest moment each year is hosting our Her Campus National Intercollegiette Conference for hundreds of our national contributors and readers. We actually just wrapped up this year’s Conference a couple weeks ago, where 600 college women heard from amazing, inspiring speakers in the form of keynotes, panels, and workshops. This event is not only the highlight of the year for many of the attendees, but is also the moment when I can see most clearly my national team (our full-time staff) working together across departments so beautifully!
Who was the most business-minded cartoon character in your humble opinion?
Jerry—from “Tom and Jerry”. He is always solving problems with ingenuity and style. And though others keep trying to bring him down—literally—he knows what it takes to be successful, and never tires!
Your Her Campus colleagues are mostly women. When a group of girls get together to create something good as you’ve done with Her Campus, people tend to voice their surprise. As if girls can’t get along or something!
I’m not sure why people would tend to think a group of women working together presents a larger set of problems than would a group of men and women, or a group of only men. The fact is that working closely with others, no matter the gender breakdown, presents its own set of unique challenges, and who is to say which is more difficult than the rest? But to answer the question with regards to Her Campus, I actually think that the company culture we’re creating has made for extremely collaborative and supportive relationships among all of us, both professionally and personally. I credit much of this to the fact that we’re a start-up, which means that we always have an “all hands on deck” attitude and everyone has a legitimate idea or concern to bring to the table.
An entrepreneur’s life can sometimes be their whole life! How do you keep that from happening to you? And what tips do you have to offer to others on maintaining balance?
The act of maintaining balance is one that takes a lot of work. It’s not just something that can naturally occur—in the literal sense, balancing a ball, for example, takes a lot of concentration and effort! I’m not always able to constantly have a work/life balance, but when I am successful it starts with setting priorities and blocking off time for personal commitments. Another really important practice is to focus 100% of your concentration on whatever it is you’re doing at the moment, whether that is working or relaxing. I try very hard not to answer personal emails during work hours, which not only makes me more efficient, but also offsets that same amount of time during off-work hours to not be answering non-essential work emails.
What tips do you have on networking and on getting buzz going on a start-up?
Identify your natural brand ambassadors and empower them to spread the word. Her Campus has no advertising or marketing budget. We’ve found that the most effective channel through which to generate buzz about Her Campus is via our own team members – aspiring journalists and student leaders who want more than anything to build up a name for themselves. Is it a surprise that they do everything they can to direct traffic to their work on our site? Since the beginning, word of mouth and social media have brought the most new readers and team members to Her Campus.
In regards to business-themed books, what’s the best—the most helpful—one you’ve read?
Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh. Zappos is known for its customer service, but CEO Tony Hsieh makes it clear that actually the company’s #1 priority is its own internal company culture. Getting that part right affects every other aspect of the company positively.
Everything looks clear in hindsight. What are some of the things you wish you had known when you were starting?
The challenges and concerns that my business partners and I discuss today are so different from what they were a year ago; now we discuss issues of management, and less so of operations. Anticipating this, and preparing for this shift more gradually would have been a great insight!
What’s the most helpful thing you learned while attending Harvard?
I learned how to manage always feeling like I didn’t have enough time for everything I wanted to do. I became comfortable with doing a great job, not a perfect job, and trusting that in the future I’d be able to get a little better at it. That attitude has definitely helped me maintain a healthy perspective as I run the start-up that is Her Campus, where there is never enough time, and where there are a lot of first attempts at new ideas!
Do you think if someone tried to start Her Campus now, they would succeed in the same that you did?
The way Her Campus developed was the product of such a unique set of circumstances, from the three co-founders themselves and the timing of launching while in college, to the specific mix of advisers and pieces of advice we had, and any number of other factors. There’s no question that if someone else tried to start Her Campus, it would have turned out completely different. As such, I have no idea how “success” would be compared!
Where do you see the web going?
As more and more time spent online happens on mobile devices rather than on a laptop/desktop, companies have invested heavily in creating beautiful, mobile-optimized experiences for their users. The “mobile first” strategy is generally very well executed by the most prominent publishers, for example. This works when devices are used mainly for consumption – reading content, downloading a file, streaming a video, etc. But as consumption on mobile increases, so does the need to be productive on mobile, as well. It’s a natural progression. Many of the web apps and cloud-based tools we all use and love work beautifully on our laptops, but really suffer in the cramped dimensions of our mobile devices. For web editors, it’s nearly impossible to edit a website on mobile. Why must this be the case? I believe that we’ll begin seeing more new and innovative UX for mobile-optimized versions of productivity tools for authoring content, updating massive sites and documents, and completing other complex tasks.
Visit Her Campus here to read one of the site’s prescriptive articles.