Interview with CEO of Modsy, Shanna Tellerman

01/01/2018 09:21 pm ET

When you are looking to decorate a room, do you get frustrated? Do you buy a piece of furniture because it seems incredible at the store, and then when it arrives at your house you hate it? Or worse you have no clue what piece of furniture would go in that space?

That is how Shanna Tellerman felt, “After hours and hours spent on Pinterest, websites, catalogues, and in stores our enthusiasm was drained. Bored, frustrated and not even close to finding the solution, we gave up and landed with a half decorated living room.”

Out of that frustration, Tellerman founded Modsy, a startup that can help you with your design problems, the company’s website states, “Take the Guesswork Out of Buying Furniture.” Let’s keep reading and find out how under Shanna’s leadership Modsy has become a successful “one-stop digital catalog.”

So, Shanna, what’s your story?

I am the founder and CEO of Modsy, a personalized home design solution that helps you create a space you love by trying out furniture and layout ideas within a lifelike 3D version of your room so you can shop confidently.

I have always had an interest in the intersection of design and technology and attended Carnegie Mellon University with the intent to explore this interest further. I took my first computer graphics course there and fell in love. I received both my BFA and Master of Entertainment Technology (MET); then set out to start my first 3D startup out of graduate school.

This company was later acquired in 2010 by Autodesk, the leaders in 3D software. I then took my only diversion from the 3D world to join the Google Ventures investment team, where I worked for two years. At Google Ventures I was able to gain a new perspective on the startup ecosystem and truly understand the dynamics of venture capital, something that was extremely valuable when starting Modsy.

And so, with my past experiences in my back pocket, Modsy was born three years ago when my now husband and I moved into our first apartment together. Like many, I found myself trying to decorate but unable to visualize exactly how pricey new furniture items would fit in my space. What I really wanted was something like a West Elm catalogue, but all staged in my own home. This is when I recognized a technological hole in the interior design market as well as a massive opportunity for a disruptive 3D solution - that’s why I created Modsy.

Why should leaders lead, and when they do lead, what is their first responsibility?

I believe that great leaders enable as much as they lead. When leading your job is to create a vision of the future that is so clear that it motivates people to action and inspires them to do their best work. This vision should also be just hard enough to accomplish that it feels within reach but keeps everyone excited and challenged to strive for what lies ahead.

As a leader you do not, and often should not, know all of the answers, and that is where you enable. By setting the vision and motivating your team you can then empower them to create the path forward and to help uncover the answers to hardest challenges along the way.

What is more important to you, the traditional hierarchy (director, manager, the boss, etc) or how teams are formed to get the work done?

Because I founded my first company straight out of school, I never had much exposure to traditional workplace hierarchies. This is a blessing and a curse - on the one hand, I never had any bad examples to learn from, and I have always been free from pressure to conform to any given structure. On the other hand, I had to develop my management style entirely from scratch, and learned some hard lessons along the way!

At Modsy, I aim to unite the best of both worlds, understanding that some level of hierarchy is necessary for organization and workflow, while at the same time creating an environment and culture that is open-minded, transparent and where everyone on the team is encouraged to share their opinions. I’m extremely proud of our team - I believe that a great team builds a great company, and I learn from Modsy employees at all levels every day.

Are you open to the nontraditional ways that teams can get work done? Can you cite one example you are currently fostering?

Absolutely!

I believe in a diversity of experience and thinking on every level. Not only does diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and backgrounds help you create a better culture, it also creates a better business. Core to our belief in diversity is the belief that a diversity of experiences, disciplines and thinking will lead to a better business.

We’ve adopted a nontraditional approach in creating our team where we aim to hire a broad range of people from a blend of science, art, engineering and design backgrounds. For example, the first official employee and one of the biggest influences on the product and company day one is our Director of Style, Alessandra Wood. Alessandra has a PhD in Design History and an M.A. in the History of Decorative Arts and Design.

A combination of Alessandra’s knowledge and expertise along with Modsy’s advanced technology allows us to successfully combine visualization with a design centric algorithm to match our customers to the right personalized product recommendations.

How do you make sure that when you are assessing talent, you are not only identifying the ability to do the job but the talent’s capacity to scale and do more?

This is a great question! It's one of the hardest things to judge but hiring someone who is not only able to do the job today but will scale with the business and take on new responsibilities down the line is critical for building a high performing team.

We have had a number of incredible people join Modsy who have already shown the ability to scale, adapt and advance along with the business. Many of these team members start with a very specific role that is focused on a small part of the puzzle. They first master this role and within a short time their knowledge of how things work combined with their capabilities leads them to taking on new challenges, leading teams and/or owning significantly larger parts of what we are building.

I believe the key to finding this kind of star talent is to search for someone who has demonstrated a desire to learn and a growth mindset. This person will not spend as much time talking about the things they do extremely well already but will instead focus on what they have learned along the way and what they hope to learn next.

We search for candidates with enthusiasm for the opportunity that goes above title, salary and benefits (yes these are important too) but the top talent has a deeper connection to what we are building and a desire to make a deep impact in the company they join.

In the competitive market for product development, how do you manage your “No’s?”

Hiring engineers and other roles focused on product development, especially in Silicon Valley, is hyper competitive. We literally interview hundreds of people in search of the right person who is both a fit for the role and wants to join.

When someone we like decides not to take the offer we are of course bummed but we never take this answer as the end of the relationship. We always keep in touch with great candidates and check in every 6-12 months.

Situations change and we often find that someone who was not ready to take the leap and join at one point in time may be back on the market and interested again at a future point. Hiring never ends and even if it takes a few years it is worth it when someone great joins your team!

As a CEO one of the toughest responsibilities you face is hiring the right team members. Why, because a great team, is what a company needs to achieve big goals. Tellerman explains, “It's one of the hardest things to judge but hiring someone who is not only able to do the job today but will scale with the business and take on new responsibilities down the line is critical for building a high performing team.”

So are you making sure that you are hiring not just for the “open position,” but hiring someone that has a growth mindset and adds value continuously?

Tellerman mentioned that she does not care if the hiring processes takes a few years. That might sound crazy, but if you are building a company and you have set audacious goals, then you have given yourself a mandate — hire the best you can hire because you have plans to put a dent in the universe.

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I am curious about having strategic conversations on how leaders leverage a latticework of mental models to not only make better decisions but evaluate the number of unique scenarios which impact their companies.

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