Tue · Sep 6

Q&A with Hayley Barna

Hayley Barna, Cofounder of Birchbox and Venture Partner at First Round Capital, sat down with us before speaking at YC's weekly dinner.

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Hayley Barna

What do you believe that few people agree with you on?

There is an important conversation gaining steam about women in tech. There are differing opinions on how (or how quickly) to change the gender ratio of teams, founders and investors. But I think there is broad agreement that it would be behoove the whole industry to figure it out and to make progress.

There is also a joke about how many startups, especially in San Francisco are setting out to replace the role of Mom in a founder’s life. On demand food, transportation, chores certainly remind me a lot of what my Mom did for me in my teenage years. Again, I think others would agree.

Where I might have a unique perspective is that I see the two things as connected. Instead of focusing on the 20-something dudes benefiting from the on-demand wave of “Mom services” I think of working women. That these services aren’t replacing Mom, they are instead a helping hand for Mom to be a founder.

If career driven women, who also want to start families, are given freedom to choose how directly to handle the typically female responsibilities of running a household they can devote more of their time and energy to their careers. If the tasks of carpooling, grocery shopping and laundry are disaggregated and outsourced then women can focus on their comparative advantages, whatever they might be. That they can still be Mom in the most important ways. Women and men can choose how much of the household shopping and cleaning they want to do themselves.

While some of these services might have precarious economics, or charge too much now to have a broad based adoption, the business models are early. I’m interested to see how they evolve over time. Just like how in the 50’s household appliances like microwaves and vacuum cleaners freed up hours of women’s time so they could enter the workplace, the latest wave of on-demand might be a feminist force that empower more working parents to have a choice and shared responsibility when it comes to the friction of household management.

What’s something you’d tell your younger self?

If I could zip back in time, I’d want to sit down with myself in the early years of Birchbox. I’d tell myself that while it’s important to be strong and positive as a founder, it’s also important to be vulnerable and ask for help.

During the early years I felt that it was my role to carry the weight of big strategic questions. Or that I needed to overcompensate for my age and experience level to crack things on my own or with my co-founder behind closed doors. I’d wait to share those gnarly problems until I had an answer. Only after building up more confidence did I learn that it’s okay to talk with the team about what’s not working before there is a solution.

As I became more comfortable with my executive team and my role as a founder I learned that by being real and human with my team and investors about the hard stuff would result in better decisions. I wish I had known that sooner.

What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was graduating college I agonized over my next step after graduation - more school or a job. If a job, which one. It felt like a massively defining choice that would determine the rest of my life.

During that time my mother shared with me an incredibly freeing observation. First, that I’m clearly someone who really enjoys working, and therefore will probably do so until I’m 80 years old or beyond. Second, that given that long timeframe, it’s very likely that I’d do lots of different things, perhaps many different careers entirely, instead of just one. She thought I’d be more of a zig-zagger than a straight line kind of person. Most people are. This advice empowered me not to overthink each step and instead to treat it like just one move in a journey down a widening path and not a constricting funnel.

This concept helped me jump into the role of founder 5 years later. Even now, despite my tendency to lapse back into overanalysis, I always go back to this conversation and do my best to lighten up about my career decisions.

Is there any lesson you’ve had to learn multiple times?

I’m a pop consumer of behavioral psychology. I’m fascinated by the ways we deviate from rational behavior over and over again. Whether it’s loss aversion, sunk costs, or endowment effects, just because we know about the presence of a heuristic or a bias doesn’t mean we’re immune from following them. I’m often realizing I’m falling into those modes of thinking and getting a chuckle out of how I’m so predictably irrational.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m focused on giving back to the New York tech community through my role as Venture Partner at First Round. As someone who was just on the other side, raising money myself, I hope I can serve as a relatable bridge to the investment community, especially for first-time founders.

That said, while I hope my operating experience helps me empathize with founders and provides me with some practical experience to share, the contrast between operating and investing is quite stark. I’m learning to readjust my workflow and goals. So in terms of what’s next, first I hope I get the chance to climb this learning curve and hone my craft as an investor. And from the top of that hill I’ll be able to make an informed choice about whether I’m going to dig in further as an investor or take the leap back into the founder role.

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