Gabriella Tegen is a New York City native, and grew up in her family’s real-estate business. “From a very young age I was going around the city, showing apartments and pretending to be of age,” she recalls. “It taught me a lot about communication and how to persuade people. I thought that my future was going to be in real estate.” But then Tegen spent a year living in Tel Aviv, and fell into the city’s incredible startup culture. “Until then, I didn’t even know what a startup really was.”
After college, Tegen went into commercial real-estate media, and sales in proptech. “I did that with great trepidation because I was taught that sales was something you did if you had no other skill, not realizing that, actually, sales are a foundational element of running a company and the ability to communicate your vision and absolutely key to scaling growth.”
So how did Tegen translate her experience into launching Smartrr, a subscription app for Shopify merchants? “Fate brought me to ecomm,” she says. “When COVID came, the area of Manhattan where I was living was so hard hit, and the small businesses were really hurting.” Tegen wanted to create a solution for business owners who suddenly lost their customers and storefronts amid lockdowns. Ecomm seemed to be the most apparent solution. “It opened my eyes to wanting a new adventure, and to help local stores.”
After hundreds of market research interviews with ecommerce founders, Tegen kept hearing that subscriptions were their biggest pain point. “Regardless of COVID, there was no good solution for recurring revenue for direct-to-consumer brands,” she says. With that, Smartrr evolved into a successful Shopify app after a year of research and development into consumer behavior. Today, it has 28 full-time employees across the world and an NYC headquarters. “We built a product that helps brands grow their subscription programs and their business more effectively with the goal of building brand affinity and increasing Customer Lifetime Value.”
Smartrr is used by hundreds of ecomm brands. Think: a cleaning product brand offering subscriptions for convenience, or more unique uses like a shower head company that sends three-month refills for its filter, or even a caviar brand offering gift-able subscriptions for the holidays. “From the beginning, it wasn’t about building an app for everyone, or building a subscription app that was just a bit better than the status quo offering. We had a vision of building the only subscription app with consumer behavior at the forefront. As of today, we incorporate advanced subscription tactics that are unique to us, such as in-house rewards, gifting, referrals and ultimately, it is an easy-to-use app,” says Tegen.
What skills and mindsets have contributed to your success?“Determination. This is not an easy path, you need to have a very clear goal and vision in mind. You need to know what you’re working day in and day out for, and you need to be able to communicate that to your team. Empathy is also key:you’re always dealing with people taking a risk on you and your company, whether it be your early-stage investors, brands that are taking a chance on you as an early riser, or those first joining your team. You have to be empathetic to other experiences and respect the risk that they’re all taking by being a part of your journey.”
How did you overcome challenges in building your company?
“We had an initial team, and that team was not seeing eye-to-eye with the initial investors, so we parted ways, and I was left in a position of being asked to take on a leadership role that I hadn't anticipated—the CEO role. That was not in my career path, I was faced with the internal question, ‘If not me, then who?’ I knew that I was the best person to take on this challenge. I had to ask myself, ‘What kind of company did I want to build?’ ‘What kind of people did I need to find?’ ‘What kind of leader did I need to become?’ I also really needed to have that end goal and vision and a mission behind everything. So we did that. We acknowledged who was on the team, and who was no longer on the team. We learned which partners believed in us and which ones did not (that was a humbling moment). And now we have a team of 28 unbelievable people and great partner networks and an investor community. We came out of it stronger.”
How would you describe your leadership style?“Agility is something that’s very key to our success. As a founder and CEO, you have to be quick in your decision making and be willing to make changes quickly. I give our leadership team and everyone else the ability to act autonomously and make decisions independently. High ownership is one of our key principles. If you’re the head of marketing, then you own marketing. But I will certainly challenge them to be their best selves and continue to raise that status quo. I’m constantly talking to everyone on the team. Having very clear and open communication cross-functionally regardless of levels is really important. I have learned the most by rising to the occasion, and I want to give everyone on my team that same opportunity and experience.”
What are you most proud of?“I have two. One, it’s incredibly humbling to have gathered the team that we hired. To have unbelievable talent and to have them stay with us through successes and failures means the world. And two, seeing the fruits of our labor, and the product translate to brands having really good success. To see them benefit from taking a chance on us is beautiful.”
How many unread emails do you have right now?“My answer is not so traditional. It’s actually just one, and it’s an email that I sent to myself, a positive mantra. I keep it unread, and then whenever I need a moment or a breather, I open it, read and put it back to unread.”
How do you like to unplug outside of work?“In my position, I’m not sure that you can ever forget about work. That said, on weeknights I go on walks with my dog—I have the best dog in the world. On weekends, I go hiking. We drive two hours outside the city. I’m very goal-oriented, and when you’re working at a startup, it’s very hard to have goals accomplished when you’re working on something so longterm and big-picture, so I go hiking for those smaller wins, like getting to the top of a mountain.”
Who are the women who inspire you?“The family who took me in as their own is the reason I do everything, my inspiration. Professionally, one is Melanie Perkins of Canva, who has done amazing things and is an incredible leader. She’s working really hard to create great representation at her company and a diverse environment. And I believe that’s the best way to run a business. The second is Bethenny Frankel. She was, in my opinion, a pioneer in taking full advantage of reality TV and creating an empire from it. And once she reached the level of success she wanted to reach, she pivoted a lot of her time to raising her daughter and to philanthropy.”
What do you look for in an employee?“We have three things that we ask in an interview. First, high ownership, regardless of if you just graduated or you’re the CMO, you see things through. The second is low ego, people who are not motivated by high recognition—of course everyone should be praised for doing good work—but low ego means that we can give feedback more freely and have better communication. And the last is not an asshole. If we get good people, we can create a good product. So really, it’s just people that are creative and good by nature.”
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?“Somewhat recently, I was talking to an investor who reminded me of the ups and downs that we have seen thus far, and said to me, ‘You are stronger than you think.’ It’s really easy to forget your past experiences, and while you may always have an uphill battle ahead of you, you may not always remember to look back and think of the mountains that you’ve already climbed.”
Worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“I’ve been told multiple times by mentors, to freeze my eggs because I could not do both. I’ve always wanted to have children, and that never made sense to me. In general, we should empower people to make whatever lifestyle choices they want.”
Learn more about Smartrr.
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