Eileen Gittins | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Eileen Gittins


Eileen Gittins is the co-founder and CEO of Bossygrl, a startup that empowers female entrepreneurs to grow real e-commerce businesses via their phones.


The Mistake:

This mistake happened at my last company, Blurb, a self-publishing platform. I spent a decade of my life building the company. I started as the sole founder with credit-card debt and took the company to an over $75 million run-rate business.

The idea for Blurb arose from some photography work I wanted to share with fellow entrepreneurs. As I was doing this, I finally thought, this is crazy — why am I making all these prints? Why don’t I just make a book?

So I wanted 40 copies of the book for the 40 people who were the subject of the book. I found out that was not possible to do in 2005. To print a book at that time, you had to do an offset print run of 1,000 copies or more.

These entrepreneurs were great friends — but not 1,000 copies worth.

I then went into a mode of trying to figure out how to do that. And I ended up building a company to do it.

We found that people really relished the idea of being able to create genuinely beautiful books. These were not little photo albums or tchotchkes; they were proper books, with proper bindings.

So it really took off.

But, here’s where the mistake came in: By 2012, e-books had been taking up all the oxygen in the publishing world for 18 to 24 months. Then iPads and tablets started to become more ubiquitous.

And as they did, the notion of an e-book expanded from just reflowable text to include other kinds of content, like audio, video and live links to other information on the web.

We thought we could be not just an adopter of rich-media e-books — but the market leader. So we spent a year building this product that allowed customers to make these kinds of e-books.

We put the technology out there. We launched with great press, media spend and marketing. And then we waited to see how many fabulous e-books we were going to see.

But it was not a tsunami; it was a trickle at best.

So our chief product officer and I were literally pulling our hair out. Our first thought was the product: Maybe it’s not easy enough to navigate, or maybe it’s not as simple to do as we thought.

Finally, I remember sitting in a conference room with her over coffee and saying, “You know what? Maybe this isn’t what our customers want. Maybe the magic here for the customers was to get a printed book.”

Once we said it and put it out on the table, it was like, “Of course!” It was the genesis of the company: It’s magic to hold a beautifully bound and printed book in your hand and know you’re an author.

Talk to your customers before you build and ship product.

The Lesson:

The lesson I learned is to talk to your customers before you build and ship product. Get inputs from them. Be relentless about really understanding what they want.

Don’t fall in love with your idea. Fall in love with what your customers really need from you.

Bossygrl is on Twitter: @bossygrlHQ.

Photo courtesy of Bossygrl