Raegan Moya-Jones was a mother in her thirties when she decided to start her own company selling baby blankets. Despite lacking a business education or any knowledge of the textile industry, she launched aden + anais and grew it to $1 million in revenue while still working full-time in corporate America.
What It Takes is Moya-Jones’s fascinating memoir of how she founded and then scaled aden + anais to $100 million in revenue. While telling her personal story, she shares her hard-won insight on co-founding a company with a friend, balancing work with motherhood, cultivating a successful company culture, and fighting discrimination in business.
An inspiring and helpful read for entrepreneurs, and anyone who is pursuing a passion against the odds, we are thrilled to discuss What It Takes with Raegan Moya-Jones.
Kelly Sarabyn: Thank you for joining us. You identify a number of systemic hurdles placed against women entrepreneurs and women in the corporate world. For decades, we have had research documenting these biases against women, yet change has been slow to occur. How do you think we as a society make this change happen?
Raegan Moya-Jones: Sadly, we still have a long way to go, which is extremely frustrating, especially as I have four daughters, and them staring down the barrel of the next 50 years is a little frightening.
But I do think it’s about vocalizing it and talking openly about it. The narrative is starting to be there.
For years and years, as women, we just sort of accepted it as our lot. Women are becoming much more vocal now, and it’s about continuing the conversation. You have to believe that eventually there will be a shift, and it will just not be acceptable anymore.
KS: You mention a study where it was shown that venture capitalists asked women founders very different questions than they asked male founders. The questions toward women were more about how they could hang on to their current state of growth, while men were asked how their companies could grow very large. This affected investment decisions because it set the stage for men’s companies to seem like billion-dollar companies, and women’s companies to seem small. How do we fight that kind of subtle bias?
RMJ: The information is out there, but bringing all the research together in one place is one of the reasons I wrote this book. People need to talk about it more. What was fascinating is that before doing this research, I was unaware in many cases that I was being subtly discriminated against. As women we are so used to it, it is our norm.
But now that I know, and I am aware of it, I have a heightened understanding of those subtleties. That is what will ultimately lead us to change, and to a very different landscape for women in business.
KS: Now that you are more aware of these more subtle forms of discrimination, have you been able to effectively call people out in your business interactions?
RMJ: Yes, I am very straight between the eyes. This doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, primarily men. If things happen, I will absolutely make comments like, “Did you just say that because I have a vagina?” Everyone gets uncomfortable, but it is about being confident enough to say, “Hold on, did you say that because I am a woman?”
It’s not that I was ever afraid to call people out. I have always been a direct person. But I was unaware of these biases. It was the norm so I never thought twice about it.
KS: Your story is very inspirational, especially for women who want to be entrepreneurs. What is your best advice to individual woman entrepreneurs?
RMJ: I would say to just be authentically yourself, that’s how you are going to succeed. I wasn’t trying to be anyone other than me. There is only one version of me, and people either like me or dislike me.
I happen to be a direct person and I do believe that being direct in business is the right way for everybody, women or men. When you are honest and direct, you get to the end goal or the solution much more quickly than when people are talking around things and telling people what they want to hear. But that is not gender specific advice.
I think the key to being successful in business and in life is to be authentically yourself. If you are your authentic self, everything will fall in place around that.
KS: You debunk the idea that an entrepreneur must immediately start working 80 plus hours a week to get their business off the ground. You launched yours while still working a full-time job. Yet once you went full-time at your company, you embraced the “all hands on deck” mindset that we associate with startups. Do you think early stage startups can offer their employees and their founders work-life balance and still thrive?
RMJ: Categorically, the amount of work you put in during the early stages of your company is going to be directly reflected in the success or failure of it. I am a proponent of the key thing to being successful in your business is how hard you are prepared to work for it.
I don’t have a business degree or a background in business. I had an idea and incredible work ethic, which was instilled in me by my parents.
In the beginning, when you are testing the idea, seeing if it is going to work, that is where you can be not all in. You don’t have to throw caution to the wind at that point. That is the perception of many entrepreneurs. Just like the founders of Warby Parker, they kept working initially, and they hedged their bets. That’s what I did as well.
But once it is at a point where it was strong enough for me to leave my day job, that’s when it is truly all consuming at a level that unless you are extremely passionate about what you’re doing I don’t think you’re going to get through it.
KS: It’s been well-documented that many mothers value work-life balance. As you point out, part of this is because men aren’t stepping up at home, and mothers are often discriminated against at work. What can we do to ensure that mothers can continue to thrive as workers?
RMJ: A lot of mothers leave their full-time jobs when they start their family, just because in a lot of corporations, there is no flexibility. If you have a sick baby or you need to take your kid to a doctor, you need that flexibility. And if you have no flexibility, you can’t go. It can absolutely affect your corporate career when your company, and even more to the point, your boss, doesn’t understand that.
A lot of women start their own businesses not so much like I did to build a large, international company and more so because they are looking for more flexibility and work-life balance. That’s why women are actually starting businesses at a greater pace than men, but they are also starting them for different reasons.
KS: Do you think companies offering more flexibility will help to close the leadership gap in the corporate world?
RMJ: I absolutely believe flexibility will help close that gap. But what society has to realize is that the reason the men can accomplish that is because they have a wife at home compromising. For the most part, it’s the women that compromise. They take on the lion’s share at home so their husbands can be successful. That is only going to change when men decide to step up on the home front.
KS: Your own story is incredibly inspirational, but it does follow the archetype of the person who works incredibly long hours and rarely sleeps. Which seems superhuman for most of us. When you were working full-time, launching a business, and raising small children at the same time, would you say that was only possible because you were barely sleeping?
RMJ: That was a conscious decision on my part to not sleep. I could have left my day job. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to give up the security until I knew it was going to be successful.
One million in revenue was the goal I set for when I would allow myself to leave my day job. Only two percent of women-owned businesses reach one million in revenue so I thought if I could do that, that was enough for me to take the leap into my business full time.
Because I consciously chose sleep deprivation over financial hardship for my family or for my business that kept me pushing forward. I look back and I ask, “How the hell did I do that?” I was freaking tired. My hair was falling out. It was not pretty.
But unless you are passionate about your business and what you’re trying to accomplish, and the amount of energy you have to put in to make it successful, I don’t know how you make it work. The majority of entrepreneurs have a similar story.
KS: When you moved to working full-time for your company, were you still working 70 or 80 hours a week or more?
RMJ: When you own your business, you can literally work on it 24/7. There is never nothing to do. That is where it is a personal choice – how much time and energy you want to put in it. I still was working hard but I started to go to bed at 12.30 am rather than 4 am. I was able to put more energy into working in daylight hours.
KS: When you started your business you mentioned you didn’t know anything about supply chains or the textile industry – do you think it takes courage to assert yourself in business as you are still learning?
RMJ: I don’t know that it took courage – it all came back to my passion and determination for what I was trying to accomplish. For the first three years, I just googled my way through it. I was teaching myself in real time how to navigate finances, and how to navigate China.
On a call once, a big retailer asked me for a line sheet, and I said absolutely. When I hung up, I had to google what it was because I didn’t have a clue. I was learning that much. I was fine with that because I wanted to learn, and I was highly motivated.
I would say that until probably 50 million in revenue, what drove us was common sense and a great work ethic. We didn’t have subject matter experts until after we got to 50 million in revenue. I surrounded myself with incredibly smart and hardworking people. When you give people who are talented and creative freedom, it is extraordinary what they are able to accomplish. And aden + anais is proof of it.
KS: You praise cultivating democracy and transparency in a company culture. Most organizations, if they have it, lose this as they grow. You mentioned Ray Dalio who ostensibly has managed to hang on to the transparency in a relatively mature organization. But why do you think so few companies are able to do this?
RMJ: I think it is very political. I experienced it when my second investors came in and took over the controlling interest of the company. When that mentality comes in, it becomes more about numbers on a piece of paper, and what people look like on a piece of paper. Then the politics come into it. It becomes Game of Thronesy, where people are vying for their position in the company.
The reason our culture was originally transparent and democratic is it was top-down in our case – to me, it didn’t matter who you were, everybody’s opinion mattered, everyone could add value. I didn’t value one person’s opinion based on their job title. That created an inclusive culture that everyone thrived in.
As soon as people came in that were higher up, and had on paper this very relevant experience, that’s when the cracks started to form. Then it became difficult to maintain the culture that was the reason aden + anais was so successful.
KS: Do you think you could have found people with expertise or seniority who could have also maintained the culture?
RMJ: If you want it badly enough and are prepared to wait for the right people, they are out there. There are incredibly talented and experienced people who would have thrived in our culture. People who were okay with the receptionists giving their opinions, and taking that seriously. People who didn’t need to feel more important than others.
They are hard to find. Success and failure is one hundred percent dependent on the people in the chairs. And there are businesses out there who have accomplished it at scale. Zappos is an example. He did an amazing job keeping that team-like and fun culture alive as it scaled. It is doable but it is hard work.
For a long time, nobody came in to aden + anais that I didn’t interview and give approval to from a cultural perspective. I was not reviewing their particular skills, but I was making sure they would fit in and add to the culture.
As soon as I stopped doing that, things started to change.
KS: Do you think if there is too much hiring for culture, we have the danger of white men choosing to hire other white men because they are “like” them?
RMJ: That’s a fascinating question. I didn’t set out to create a culture. I wasn’t aware that I was trying to make culture – I was looking for like-minded people, people who were kind, hard-working, and had a sense of humor. It had nothing to do with gender or race, we were all over the place in terms of diversity.
If the person in control of building out the culture and company, then, yes, if they are a misogynist white dude, they will surround themselves with that.
These cultures, the ones that get talked about, like Zappos, it is all about the person leading it. That’s how those wonderful cultures are built.
You make a good point, if there is an asshole at the top, there will be a whole lot below.
KS: And that purportedly happened at places like Uber. But what about the less blatant cases where “tech bros” are not intentionally out to not hire women or treat them poorly, but they are just hiring other “tech bros” because they seem familiar?
RMJ: Yes, they are looking for people who are like themselves. If you start with what the best humans can be, which is respectful and kind, people who can laugh at themselves, and have a good work ethic, those are human traits that are desirable to everyone. When you are starting from that core, you can’t really get it wrong.
KS: You co-founded your company with a good friend, and that relationship eventually came apart, and she left the business. You caution against going into business with friends, but you also seemed to cultivate personal relationships with your team. What’s your advice on the line between personal and professional relationships?
RMJ: As the business grew, I knew there were newer people who resented that there was an original group of people I was clearly very close to and connected to. It’s a very difficult situation. These people were not my friends before they came in to aden + anais. When you’re building a business, you spend a lot of time together in the trenches. Everyone is wearing a bunch of hats. You form friendships and relationships.
I was incredibly grateful and appreciative of how hard my team worked, and how passionate they were for so little amount of money. I was always passionate because I started it. What blew my mind was I was able to surround myself with people who were just being paid a salary but who were still able to be passionate as me.
Once we had 70 to 80 people, I couldn’t stop and have a lot of meaningful relationships with every single person, like I used to when there were only 12 of us. I knew there was resentment about how close I was to the initial core group.
That wasn’t easy to navigate. But I just don’t know how you can be in a startup situation with people who are giving their all to build the business and not form relationships with them. I don’t know how you can do that, having lived what we lived together in the early stages of the company.
I wouldn’t change anything about the way I did it. Nothing at all. Forming closer relationships helped the business rather than hindered it. There was that extra level of desire to see it succeed from the team because of that personal connection that formed from having been in the trenches with me.
KS: Do you have any other advice for entrepreneurs?
RMJ: If you are not prepared to work harder than you ever have in your own life, don’t start your own business. You aren’t going to be successful. I really do believe success hinges on the amount of time and energy you are willing to put in.
Raegan Moya-Jones is the co-founder and President of Saint Luna, a premium moonshine company, and the founder and former CEO of aden + anais. You can buy What It Takes: How I Built a $100 Business Against the Odds here.