At an end-of-semester dinner sponsored by the Women Innovators Network on Thursday, Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Her Campus, the online magazine written by and for college women, shared the story of her company’s founding and gave Boston College students advice about how to start their own businesses.
“I’m excited to talk to you about how I, along with my co-founders … started Her Campus … with no money, no work experience, and no business education, because it’s something that all of you can do as well,” Lewis said.
Lewis explained how she and the other Her Campus co-founders, Windsor Western and Annie Wang, met at Harvard University while working on a student lifestyle and fashion magazine, of which they eventually became board members.
While on the board, the three helped transition the magazine, which initially came out only in print, into an online publication. Shortly after, college women from all across the United States started telling them that they wished their schools had a publication like it, not only so they could read it, but also so they could write for it.
Lewis’s first lesson for people who are thinking about starting a business is that they should follow their passion. She advised against chasing business opportunities solely because they seem trendy or lucrative.
“Immerse yourself in the things that you love … because that’s how you’re going to be best positioned to figure out what are those pain points and what are those goals that there can be a business opportunity in order to fill,” Lewis said.
She also reminded the audience of how it was important, when starting their businesses, to build a team they knew they worked well with.
While many have the misconception that Her Campus was started by three best friends, Lewis stated that in reality she, Western, and Wang were actually not very close when they first started working together. But while working on their online magazine, they had found that they had complementary skill sets and were aligned in terms of their work ethic and values.
During their time on the board, the three knew their publication had the potential to become something more but did not know how to take the next step. When Harvard’s undergraduate business competition, the i3 Innovation Challenge, came along, they decided to use it as an opportunity to force themselves to sit down and map out the ideas that they had been thinking about.
“What was really great about the business plan competition was that … it kind of asked us the questions that we hadn’t even known were things we needed to think through, and it forced us to do it on a deadline,” Lewis said.
After winning the competition their junior year, the three moved to New York City together to pursue internships in design, marketing, and editorial work the following summer.
“We said to one another, ‘This summer we’re going to … meet as many people as we can to really build up our network and to figure out how we go from a Google Doc business plan to actually launching this company,’” Lewis said.
The team knew they wanted to launch Her Campus that fall, when they entered their senior year of college. At a time when the site was nowhere near finished, the three of them decided to start distributing fliers around Harvard’s campus and set a launch date, Sept. 16, 2009, as a way of creating an external deadline for themselves–a deadline they were able to meet.
The founders, who had tried to make as much progress with the company as they could before graduating college, decided December of their senior year to pursue Her Campus full-time after graduation. The following summer, they were nominated to Inc.’s 30 Under 30.
Lewis explained how even though they were their own bosses, it was important for her, Western, and Wang to give themselves schedules complete with deadlines and to make sure that they were working a normal workday everyday, if not longer.
Even when things were off the ground and becoming more stable for the company, the team still had down moments, including times when they could not pay their salaries or huge projects and partnerships fell through.
“During those difficult times … pick yourself back up,” she said. “Keep on pushing forward. On the flipside of that, when things are going well and running smoothly … you can’t let yourself get too comfortable in that either, or otherwise things can start to stagnate.”
Today, Her Campus, now eight years old, has chapters at over 350 colleges, puts on an annual Her Conference and College Fashion Week, and has released a book entitled The Her Campus Guide to College Life.
Lewis encouraged students who are considering starting a business themselves to start as soon as possible.
“The sooner you … get something up, there’s just that momentum and that feedback that carries you forward, and then you have no choice but to keeping going and to just figure it out,” she said.
Featured Image by Katherine Mahoney / Heights Staff