Portrait of a Girlboss: Why Elizabeth Scherle, Co-Founder of Influenster, Wants to Give You Free Stuff
At first glance, Elizabeth Scherle’s story is comfortingly familiar, cut of that classic small-town-girl-leaves-home-and-makes-good-in-the-big-city cloth. But then you’d need to tack on the fact that she’d eventually go on to found a startup that reaches millions of people and acquires millions of dollars in funding, which isn’t generally part of the script, and there is, of course, further distinction in the details: Elizabeth was raised in Iowa on a farm where the nearest town boasted a population of 171, so that “small town” bit is no joke. And as the daughter of an artist mother and a musician father, and the granddaughter of a U.S. Congressman, worldly aspirations were all but inevitable (at the time of our conversation, Elizabeth was just returning from a few weeks spent on vacation in South Africa). Fast forward a few decades, and to say that she’s “made it” as a city dweller is to put it mildly: Elizabeth is the co-founder and president of New York City-based company Influenster, a product discovery and review platform that has built up a membership of 2.5 million users in seven years, with 12 million product reviews and 1.7 million products featured on the site, and last year, they raised $8 million in Series A funding.
That time between point A and point Series A? Elizabeth characterizes it as a long stretch of bouncing between jobs and interests, not really knowing what she wanted; after attending college at Arizona State University where she studied business and marketing, Elizabeth headed out to New York City, not out of a desire to be there so much as the fact that her sister, a ballet dancer, happened to have an open room. After bouncing around between a few corporate-type marketing gigs, Elizabeth eventually landed at a startup that produced fashion events for indie designers, where she felt she was on the verge of getting fired—”I was actually really bad at event planning,” she tells us, laughing. Instead, her bosses decided to throw her into client partnerships and sales and see how she fared—something only slightly preferable to being fired, in Elizabeth’s mind; public speaking terrified her, and everything about being a quote-unquote salesperson seemed unsavory.
You can probably guess what happened next: Turns out Elizabeth was a natural when it came to pushing product. In her dealings with their indie-designer clients, she found that if you could communicate a genuine connection and desire to help a brand, selling something suddenly didn’t feel so cheesy. Over time, it was her experience acquiring sponsorships for event gift bags that eventually led her to the idea that would go on to be the spark for Influenster: “I learned the power of product trials. [Women] would buy tickets to the events and get the bags for free, and they would just go crazy. And the brands wanted to know more about the people they were giving the products to. At that time, these brands weren't collecting any data and feedback on the products sampled.”
It just so happened that her friend (and now co-founder) Aydin Acar shared Elizabeth’s curiosity about what diving into this gap in the marketplace might yield, and so they set out to answer the following questions: If you give people free products, can you get them to answer surveys about it? And if you can, is that a service companies would pay for?
Turns out the answer is yes and yes. Harnessing the power of social media and the idea of “influencers” as it was just starting to emerge, Influenster has evolved into a powerful platform where consumers read honest, comprehensive reviews about just about anything, be it a new shampoo or dog food. Those who participate on the platform most avidly are rewarded with VoxBoxes—boxes loaded with tons of free stuff to try and then review on Influenster. On the business end, companies who participate receive invaluable customer feedback and data. “At the core of it, it’s about how people trust each other more than they trust advertisements,” Elizabeth explains. She chatted with Girlboss further about the rise of social media as a tool for businesses, Influenster’s less-than-common approach to getting investors (i.e. they created a sustainable business first!) and what some of the biggest challenges have been of running a rapidly growing company:
So you guys named the company Influenster, which sounds a lot like “influencer,” and you guys rely partly on influencers to get word out about products, but that was all sort of incidental and not part of the original plan; can you explain?
It's funny, I always tell people you have to really pay attention—whether it's your consumers or your members or your clients—for trends. And we didn't set out to be in the influencer space. When we originally started the company, it was like all about very targeted trials, heavy data collection, seeking out product, getting results, and analyzing that and giving that to brands. [At the time], we were really on the cusp of the social media craze with brands. A lot of them didn't even know people could talk about their brands on social media. A lot of them were scared when we would even pitch the idea. But we sent out these products and we just noticed that people were posting about them and tagging us. And we weren't even asking them to. We were like "Oh my god, I can't believe people are doing this." When we were first trying to sell it, it was really hard, because there was no influencer marketing. All they knew was, "Oh, I'm going to pay people like celebrities or whoever to be my spokespeople." But getting micro influencers or real people to talk about your product on social was such a new thing. It definitely took a little bit of convincing to get brands to try it.
It seems like there’s a pervasive mythology about successful startups—like, you come up with an idea, waltz into a room of venture capitalists, and come back out with millions and millions of dollars. You guys went six years before you got your first round of funding. Why?
We did try and get investors at first, and that was really challenging. It was something I wasn’t familiar with. What I did know was how to sell to brands. So I ended up just doing what I know, and that’s actually what led to us making money. And I think we're positioned differently and we're just a different type of business because we had to be making money early on in order to survive. So all the products that we have are really tailored to this idea that brands are going to pay for this and members are going to respond to it. Once we were profitable, we weren't in any hurry to seek investment and it was more like we're going to wait for the right kind of partner.
And I think another thing to consider is that when you have investors—and it depends on the investors, of course—you can't necessarily move in the way that you want to because you're beholden to others. Of course, it’s hard to start a business when you don't have any money. But for us, it was like, “Let's figure out how we can make money.” I think that's really been a blessing. It depends on your business, but if you put your energy into moves that actually make you money, that might be better.
And what were those early days like?
We didn't have an office for probably over a year, and we didn't pay ourselves for several years. It was hard. I rented out my apartment on Airbnb to make money sometimes. And there were definitely ups and downs. Initially, it was really hard to get money from brands and we ended up going into debt. But then we decided to try a different approach; I was like, "Hey, if you're a brand, you can try it for free. Let us run this for you. We believe in our product. And hopefully, you'll want to buy it again." And I think if we wouldn't have done that, then the company definitely would've failed. I just don't think there would have been an opportunity to break through. But that took a few years.
You guys recently started a scholarship program aimed at getting girls into STEM. Why is that something that’s important to you and Influenster?
Personally, navigating the tech industry, there are just not a lot of women here. Even when you meet with investors, it's almost all men. You meet a lot of people in the development space and it just seems very unbalanced, which I don’t think is a surprise to anyone. But working in it so closely, I just think there are so many great job opportunities, and I think it is important to create awareness around that. In addition to being a coder, there's actually developing products for apps or even thinking about UX and user engagement, and things that are really fascinating and really high paying. And I think it's important for women to feel like they can be included and kind of open them up to the space.
Any advice you can pass on to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Startups are of course very cool right now, but I think you have to really ask yourself tough questions and be honest. Are you obsessed with your idea? What's your passion level? Because you're really going to be living and breathing that for the next several years. And also, what are your motivations? If it's to make money, you definitely don't make money for a very long time. And also, you have to consider things like what life stage you are in. That’s something that I ask people. You have to put a lot of time and energy in, and you miss out on social events, or that might mean delaying a relationship or delaying having a family. That sort of thing.
But I think if you're gung-ho and you want to do it, seeking out the right type of partnership is important. You don't necessarily have to do things alone. One of the great things about my business is that yes, I'm the co-founder, but I also strategically aligned myself with some other partners here that really made sense. None of us really have the same talents and it really helped build the core team we needed to make it work.