Last month, Girlboss partnered with Mint for “An Impolite Conversation” in New York City — a panel discussion hosted by Sophia Amoruso, moderated by journalist and finance expert Farnoosh Torabi.
In reaction to the longstanding notion that talking about money is a faux pas, the panel brought together four remarkable entrepreneurs with different backgrounds and skill sets — Mackenzie Barth, CEO and co-founder of Spoon University; Nina Faulhaber, co-founder of sustainable clothing company ADAY; Lisa Price, founder of beauty company Carol’s Daughter; and Wing Yau, founder of jewelry company WWAKE — in candid conversation about their finances.
Founded in 2013 while Barth and co-founder Sarah Adler were undergrads at Northwestern University, a project that started as a scrappy print publication quickly evolved into an online food platform that attracts more than 2 million users every month.
Earlier this year, Spoon University was acquired by Scripps Network, the parent company of the Food Network, and was roughly valued at $10 million. The success of Spoon University is impressive by any measure, but it’s especially awe-inspiring considering Barth accomplished this at an age when most of us are just starting to open our first credit cards.
We checked in with Barth to find out more about how she learned to deal with investors and run a company at such a young age, and what it’s like to manage the temptations a lot of young people face when it comes to spending.
How were your financial habits shaped, for better or for worse, by your upbringing?
I’m a pretty conservative spender. I grew up in a situation where I didn’t need to worry about money, but my parents were very cognizant of how that could affect my view on money growing up, so they did a lot to try to help me understand its value. As a result, I was always asking myself if something I was spending money on was “unnecessary.”
That mentality isn’t great for spending on fun things, like entertainment and travel, but recently I’ve decided spending in those areas helps me enjoy life more, and therefore they can be a necessity here and there.
You started working on Spoon University while you were still in school. Often the end of college comes with a lot of debt, and even more so, comes with financial insecurity as you embark on jobs that don’t pay for a cushy lifestyle. How were you able to start a company at only 23? Before you were able to engage investors, how did you support yourself?
I was really lucky to have my parents support me in starting the business after I finished school. In their minds, it was in lieu of paying for a year of grad school. But that meant I didn’t have independence and had to live on very little in NYC until we could raise money and afford to pay ourselves a salary. It was tough … but once we made enough connections and convinced investors to help fund the business, life got a little easier.
Getting funding requires you to get people to bet on the fact that you will know how best to manage their money, and comes with a high degree of scrutiny when it comes to financials. How did you get people comfortable with your financial know-how, and how did you hold yourself accountable in both your business and personal life?
My co-founder and I were scrappy from the start, so we built the business pretty significantly without a lot of capital. Investors were shocked that we could do so much with so little, and I think that appreciation of resourcefulness made them trust us with their money.
In the actual fundraising process, we presented our high-level plan for how we’d spend the funds, but everyone knows it’s just a best guess. It’s mostly used as a gut check to make sure you’re not spending too much in a crazy area. After we received funding we managed our budgets very closely and made sure we always knew how much runway we had left.
You’re dealing with money on a level that a lot of people your age aren’t. What’s that like? Do you ever struggle with the need to maybe take that license we give ourselves when we’re young — to spend without a lot of foresight?
In the same way that you have to budget your life expenses, from bills to the fun things, you have to do that for a business. So managing money in the business was just like managing my own personal finances, just on a bigger scale.
How did your personal finance practices parlay into building a business when you first started out?
My conservative personal spending was also reflected in the business. We were very careful not to spend more than we needed to, and we’d often try to find ways to get things with discounts or through trade. While it allowed us to have more runway, I think that mentality ultimately hurt us, because we should have been more open to investing in hiring senior talent sooner.
Can you describe a period of struggle or a low moment that helped you understand the importance of taking ownership of your finances?
Our company was just acquired, so now I have more money in the bank than I have ever had and it quickly became apparent that I had a lot of learning to do if I wanted to be smarter with my saving and investing choices. It hasn’t been a low moment necessarily, but a good wake up call.
Finances, as with a lot of aspects of our lives, are often compartmentalized into what we show the world and what we choose not to. When it comes to financial stress, who do you turn to when you need some real talk?
My friends and I are pretty open about our spending habits. It’s helpful to talk to people in your same situation. I also can talk to my parents about it. Because they have the context of understanding my viewpoint on money growing up, their advice is especially helpful.
What would you say is your worst financial habit? Your best?
My worst is buying cheap clothes that I end up wanting to throw out six months later. My best is that I’m thoughtful about what I spend, before I spend it!
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