Contrary Radio: Tina Sharkey

Will Robbins · Apr 26, 2019

On this episode of Contrary Radio, Tina Sharkey talks about:

  • Studying International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania

  • Lessons from 20 years of e-commerce and brand-building

  • The importance of team-building from day one

Listen to the episode on Spotify, iTunes, or Stitcher. You can also listen and read the transcript below. Enjoy!

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Will Robbins: Hello and welcome to Contrary Radio. I’m your host, Will Robbins. In this episode I talk with Brandless co-founder Tina Sharkey. We cover her experience as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, e-commerce and the future of brands, and advice to first time founders. Let’s jump in!

Will Robbins Tina, thanks for joining! Really glad we could talk .

Tina Sharkey Oh my gosh I’m so happy to be here. I have to close my eyes and pretend I’m on Locust Walk.

Will Robbins Sounds great. Let’s start out with some context on you as a person. So you get to Penn, and I know you have pretty diverse interests. What’d you spend your time doing and thinking about? Did you know that you started company one day, for example.

Tina Sharkey Well it’s funny, you know when I said I’m closing my eyes and pretending I was on Locust Walk.

Tina Sharkey What I really mean is that in standing in the center of campus and doing a 360, you know you feel like you’re looking at the college, and the esteemed institution that the college is, and the fundamental arts and science background, and then you kind of turn and you look up towards Annenberg. And then you turn a little bit more, and you look at Wharton and I just was like wow I want to do all those things, but I can’t do all those things right now. And so I went to my advisor at the college and said like what major do you have where I can get a strong liberal arts training in the fundamentals which I believe are so important, but I’m dying to go do some stuff at Wharton and I’m dying to go do some stuff on Annenberg and actually there was a master’s program in the arts that I really loved because I went to the Barnes Foundation and I was a passionate art person and then finally I said “oh by the way I also want to live abroad. Whadda ya got?” And they said “actually funny you should say that, we actually have an international relations major that’s very flexible, and I think that you can build all of that into IR.” And that’s how I became an IR Major. I really backed into it from wanting to do all these various things across the campus.

Will Robbins Gotcha. That makes a lot of sense. So I think that there are a lot of interesting viewpoints in Silicon Valley, especially about whether you have a technical background, do you go to business school, all that sort of stuff. What’s your viewpoint there? Because obviously there have been successful people like yourself, like Eric Schmidt, that have taken international relations courses. What’d you really get out of it, and how do those skills transfer into whether it’s Brandless or iVillage or previous things you’ve worked on.

Tina Sharkey Yeah I know a lot of people talk about STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math, and STEM education, and how important it is, and I really talk about STEAM which is science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math because I believe whether it’s Silicon Valley or in any industry anywhere across the world, we are in a moment of massive cultural business and consumer and enterprise transformation. And transformation is what is happening everywhere. The future of transportation whether it’s ridesharing like Uber or Lyft or whether it is the future of work communication like the Slack platforms that are taking advantage of all the messaging or whether it is the future of you know of travel and love and and hospitality like Airbnb and HomeAway and Expedia and all of those companies, that everything is in transformation.

Tina Sharkey And so I think having strong fundamentals: being able to both build business plans, but also be able to storytell, be able to understand the context of where an idea sits in culture and history in the context of the industries that you’re disrupting and transforming. There’s a lot of history that’s in there, there’s a lot of econ that’s in there, you know I did all of those things, and a lot of sociology and psychology. So understanding the cultural implications anthropology all of those various things that all apply. And so I think an interdisciplinary approach is a great way to have an undergraduate degree because it then lets you kind of develop your curiosity. Because at the end of the day, if you go to undergrad in my opinion and you study only one thing, then it’s almost like going to a trade school. And I feel like if you want to develop a company you have to be much more well-rounded because there are so many different hats that you wear as a founder, as an entrepreneur, as a leader, as a fundraiser, a storyteller, as a recruiter, and as an executer of the business, and you need to be able to recruit and surround yourself with people who complement your skills and who are smarter than you in areas that you don’t have those expertise. But being able to do all of that really requires tremendous communication skills, writing skills, interpersonal communication skills, and you know someone that’s lived in the world has interests so that they create that interpersonal dynamic while they’re also deploying the idea and the passion of the industry they want to disrupt and the business they want to build.

Will Robbins So you mentioned something earlier that was you kind of felt like you were in the middle of a transformation with all these different new technologies coming out. It’s definitely not coming to an end now, and yet at the same time there’s a lot of kind of revisionist history about the transition from traditional commerce for example, to more QVC style channels, to the Web. What did it really look like back then, and what sorts of trends did you see, and how did you untangle the narrative versus the actual shifts happening?

Tina Sharkey Well I’m laughing only because you know I love the “back then.” We used two sticks together to make a fire and it was amazing!

Tina Sharkey So I would say that when I talk about transformation I wasn’t referring to the transformation that I’m in. I was referring to the transformation that the world was in. Everything is up for grabs right now because I think that unlike the leaders who went online and who started to use and deploy technology as an enabling platform to do quote fill in the blank everything, this next generation was born online. And the next generation was born mobile.

Tina Sharkey And so the shift in consumer behavior the shift in what they call the bring your own device movement which is the idea that in the old days you would never use your own phone or your own laptop to at your office. But now right alongside your Snapchat app is your your Slack app and are your other apps that you’re using for work. And so it’s that bring your own device and enterprise.

Tina Sharkey So this is called the consumerization of enterprise, meaning that the software that is built for the offices has to feel like something that people want to use and likely will end up being on their devices. When it comes to the commerce experience, convenience used to mean ubiquity. Convenience used to mean “it’s in every store, it’s on every shelf.” But convenience is getting redefined where convenience now means I can do it on my phone. It’s going to come to my house or be delivered to my office where I want it right now. And so the idea that people used to plan their weeks on when they were doing their shopping, or when they were doing their consumption or whatever. That’s all changed because it’s an on demand economy.

Tina Sharkey So in the same way that people think they can bring a car to them anytime they want it, they also think they can bring that meal to them any time they want it, and they also think they can bring anything to themselves anytime they want it. So the idea of immediacy and convenience is transforming, and they’re not wanting to buy or engage in the brands or the institutions or the experience that their parents had. So Venmo versus even PayPal, or instead of owing someone money they’re doing a Venmo account as opposed to even transacting through a bank or through cash. Cash is like an old idea.

Tina Sharkey It’s sort of like “what are those things?” So I think that if you look across every single industry or business the opportunity is so ripe for a fresh approach. One that is mobile first one that understands that consumer and enterprise are very blurred lines, and one that understands is psychographic of a community and an audience and a consumer base enterprise or business that is used to on demand. And so that impacts the way people think about convenience and the way people think about other things.

Will Robbins Gotcha. You talked about the shift of what it means to be a brand, and obviously with Brandless you’re right at the center of it. A common thing that we talk about with founders is the surprising difference between what sounds hard, and what’s actually really hard. What are some of the trivial sounding things you’ve had to be really resourceful to deal with so far?

Tina Sharkey I’d say that you can’t underestimate the time it takes. You know if you’ve grown up in digital businesses, scaling those are, I don’t want to say anything is easy, but you’re scaling them on digital platforms that are virtual. When you’re trying to scale a physical goods business where you have the long lead times of creating the goods and bringing the goods in from other parts of the world, planning in those calendars, understanding the logistics of getting them into their warehouses, and then getting them to the end user, and the scaling of that, that’s scaling physical goods which is very different than scaling virtual goods. And so being able to sort of calibrate that and line that up with demand and planning and inventory planning and all the rest is your lead times are nowhere near what the insurgency and immediacy is of building things for digital only.

Will Robbins Can you tell me just what your general direction out of school was? You got a very diverse interdisciplinary education. What do you do next? Are you deliberate choosing your next job? How do you think about what you do in the context of you ultimately wanting to be an entrepreneur?

Tina Sharkey Yeah. You know that’s a great question. My mom was a fashion executive and so I grew up thinking, I grew up in Manhattan, I used to go to her showroom to do my homework after school, and it was my intention to be just like her, and to ultimately run a fashion company one day. And so when I just graduated school, I had the privilege to do some like informational interviews and meet some potential mentors etc. etc. and I met through that process a gentleman who also in addition to running his fashion companies had like an investment company and they were sort of incubating new ideas. They didn’t call it that back then. (Remember we were still rubbing sticks together!) But he was he was investing and importing high definition television technology into America. And I met him in the context of fashion and the apparel industry.

Tina Sharkey But when I went to his office he had all these other business plans like sitting out. And one of those business plans, beleive it or not, was one that I had helped write when I was at Penn. I took an entrepreneurial management class and there was a pairing of a Penn student with local entrepreneurs to help them write their plan and that plan was sitting on this person’s desk.

Tina Sharkey And so I began to talk to him about it and it turned out he wasn’t going to invest in the company but he’s like “wow” you really should meet my partner we’re looking at these other technologies maybe you want to get involved, and I didn’t have any idea that that would be the door that would lead me into technology and new technologies and market disruption and all the rest. But I was a very curious person and I ended up never working in fashion. I ended up going directly into HDTV and then I use that as my launching pad to continue to pursue what I thought were interesting innovative disruptors in various industries that then led me along the path.

Will Robbins And in the last couple minutes. What advice do you have for first-time founders and students, both in terms of pitfalls to avoid, and things to really focus on and make sure you nail?

Tina Sharkey So I say things to really focus on is “team team team team team.” Build a great team, and that team does not have to be first full time employees at first because they’re in the early days, but build an advisory team of industry leaders. And they don’t have to be leaders that are in the headlines. They have to be people that are clearly findable, that have the expertise and industry that could be helpful to you. Build an advisory board for that. Build a team of people that complement your skills, that are smarter than you, and think about diversity inclusion from Day Negative One. Build a culture where people feel like they have a seat at the table, where they feel like they can be heard and they can be seen, and make sure that’s the culture you build with the first hire and all the hires that follow them. That’s the imprint and the blueprint that you are setting up for your company in the future. And that’s not something you do later. That’s something you do first. Things to avoid is to get ahead of yourself to make sure that your company is always funded, to make sure that you stay humble, that you stay flexible, and that you’re in love with your ideas passionately and can tell that story, but you’re also flexible that you know that you’re not going to get there the way you think you’re gonna get there. And that’s not failure, that’s progress, and progress means you’re moving a ball forward but you might not move it forward the way you thought you were going to and that’s OK. And so constantly make sure that you have the fundamentals down, you have the ability to tell and scale a big story, but you own the details, and you own the discipline of executing those details while you’re still keeping the big picture in the background.

Will Robbins Great. Well unfortunately that’s all the time we have. So Tina, again, thank you so much for sharing your story!

Tina Sharkey It’s my pleasure. And congratulations to all the people that are listening to this that are out there trying to make their humble swipe at reimagining something. Just go do that, and then do it again, and it’s gonna be awesome.

Will Robbins And that concludes another episode of Contrary Radio. Thank you so much for listening. If you want to learn more about us we can be found on the web at and on social media @contrarycapital. Thanks!

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