Susan Lyne: "Sometimes it takes a fight"
Few people’s careers have intersected with as many media legends as Susan Lyne. From Jane Fonda and Martha Stewart to Shonda Rhimes and Patty Hearst.
These days, Lyne has a fund called BBG Ventures — which stands for “Built By Girls” — and is focused on funding female entrepreneurs.
This puts Lyne in a prime position to share everything she has learned about gender in a variety of businesses with up and comers — and at a crucial time for both Silicon Valley and Hollywood. In particular, getting fired from ABC despite an epic run of programming and promises made to give her more power. She said in a recent podcast that “it was a really good lesson that you can’t sit back, and be passive, and assume that by being the good girl, you’re going to succeed. That sometimes it takes a fight.”
Sarah Lacy: Let’s start out with BBG Ventures. Usually, I like to start from the beginning of someone’s career and go forward, but it’s so interesting this moment in time, right now, in venture capital when it comes to gender issues.
Tell us a little bit about BBG and what drove you to start it.
Susan Lyne: Sure. We are an early-stage venture fund, investing in women-led tech companies. We launched in September 2014. It was clear to me and my partner, Nisha Dua, that there was both a huge hole and additionally a big opportunity there.
I had started working for a company called Gilt Groupe, back in 2008. It was founded by two women, who came out of Harvard Business School. While I was there, partly because the smartphone created a really fertile launch-ground for women to start thinking about building businesses and services, lots of different kinds of women… found their way to my office.
I saw all the teams of women who were building what were the first generation of this new wave of female founders that have come out of New York City, BirchBox, LearnVest, PaperlessPost.
To a person, they talked about what a challenge it was raising money. Despite the fact that they had interesting backgrounds and they had great ideas, they just had a hard time getting male Venture Capitalists to believe that they could build a dynamic business.
I heard that not 5 times, not 10 times. I heard it 50 times, 100 times. I assumed that it would change pretty quickly as male VCs realized what the opportunity was, but it didn’t. It still hasn’t. There is no question that this new ecosystem of female founders is building really interesting strong companies. You’re starting to see funds like ours, that are popping up in different parts of the country.
It’s incredibly exciting. It’s great to be around people who are rethinking particularly different parts of home life and work life, and just saying, “I can make this better.”
Sarah Lacy: Now, I think for several years, people wanted…there was this big story about unconscious bias in venture capital, and everyone wanted to believe that there weren’t just a bunch of sexist pigs running around Saint Hill Road. That this was just they didn’t understand the businesses women were running, or they didn’t have those people in networks.
This summer what has really exploded are these stories of not unconscious bias but women being grabbed under tables, women being outright propositioned and harassed.
I’m curious, your sense of why those women were having such a hard time getting funded. Was it just something as simple as, “I don’t understand commerce. I’m a dude. I’ve got to ask my admin,” or do you think it’s something more nefarious than that?
Susan Lyne: I think it’s probably all of the above. There are plenty of VCs who I think are really good guys, and they just don’t have networks that include women. It’s weird. This is a culture and an ecosystem that has been so herald or homogeneous, that honestly these guys just missed a lot of the stuff that was going on for a period of time.
I think there’s a second problem on top of that, which is that a lot of them even once they knew what was happening that, “Meh, not for me. I don’t think these are ever going to be big businesses. I don’t think they’re ever going to be something that could turn into a company that could return half of my fund. I’m not going there.” I think it’s both.
Sarah Lacy: I think you’re right. Sometimes though, we don’t acknowledge enough the actual bad actions and how widespread they are. Whenever I’ve talked to a lot of female founders, they like to use two role models, particularly if they’re talking about building a media business, or even a content and commerce business. One is Oprah, and one is Martha Stewart.
The first time I remember hearing your name, obviously, when you took over as the President of Martha Stewart during a really challenging time for the company. At the time, I was a young woman. I think I was just married. I used to record “Martha Stewart Living” during the week and then sit and watch them on Saturday mornings and take notes. I would never garden to save my life, but I learned a lot of great recipes.
I was a fan of her as a woman, but she also was a complex image as a woman, as this super successful female entrepreneur that a lot of people resent but also related to. I’m curious with that being such a big, early part of your career, what you think she did for women and represents and why she was able to build such a big company off of domesticity.
Susan Lyne: It’s so interesting because she is a complex person. That complexity is part of the reason that she was able to build such a dynamic brand. A couple of things that I think are really interesting about her. First of all, she didn’t start Martha Stewart Living until she was 50. The magazine that was the basis for the empire she built was really a second act at least.
She had been a very successful caterer and had run a nice one-to-three-person business that also turned into a great books business. She had become a persona. It was really when she got Time Inc. to agree to do a joint venture with her and to allow her to launch Martha Stewart Living that she was able to build the first of the cornerstones that became this company.
One of the great stories she tells is about going in to pitch it to Time Inc. She had put together a July issue that had all kinds of Fourth of July stuff in it and great ideas for entertaining, for recipes, for decorating, all this great stuff.
They listened to it and said, “That’s really fantastic, but what would you do for the second July?” She’d used up all the ideas possible for July in this one issue. She had to explain to them that there was a never-ending pot of ideas there if you were a creative person. That became the first part.
The second part was this deal she did with Kmart, which was revolutionary at the time because she was perceived as a kind of upscale brand, but she decided to go very mass and to get a mass retailer to agree to work with her to create high-quality products at mass prices. She was really the first person to break through in this masstige area.
Those two things — and there were other parts to it, but those were really the two building blocks — allowed her to take this company public. I knew the brand really well. It excited me what she had been able to do. I joined the board at a difficult time, which was when she’d been indicted and was facing a trial.
Then after she was convicted, it became clear to all of us on the board that if she didn’t go to prison and get this behind her, if she appealed it instead, she was not going to have a company to come back to. Advertisers were not going to come back until, as they said, this was behind her.
It was a great experience for me to step into that role. I’m still an obsessive home renovator. I love cooking. I love a lot of the things about the brand. What made her controversial was a perception that I think has changed over time. Going to prison was really good for her in this sense.
Initially, she was viewed as a perfectionist, somebody who didn’t want you to see any of the mistakes, or the problems, or the things that were messy in this process. She became the butt of a lot of jokes. Going to prison blew all that up and made her a culture hero to a younger generation of people, and also allowed her to shed that perfectionist image.
Sarah Lacy: At the time, it seemed like an era, when they had to pick some scapegoats. We had to see some perp walks. There were certainly a lot of people doing what she did that did not go through the trial.
Did you feel like part of that was because she was a woman, and in general, do you think the attitudes towards her were gendered?
Susan Lyne: Yeah. She took the fall. There’s no question. There were so many people who were under investigation and were even charged with insider trading. She did not insider trade, first of all. That charge was thrown out before she even went to trial. What she was convicted of was the stupid stuff that she did to try to hide a trade she had made.
Sarah Lacy: It’s always the cover-up.
Susan Lyne: It’s always the cover-up, exactly. Truthfully, if she had appealed it, she probably could have gotten it thrown out. It was a very surprising verdict to a lot of people. She was an easier target than a lot of the more serious Wall Street people who were being charged. Yeah, she took the fall. There’s no question.
The interesting thing is that, and because I was on the board, I saw this, her customers, the people who were her brand loyalists clearly thought she had been unfairly targeted because we saw a big spike in magazine subscriptions. People who had subscribed for a year were re-upping for two years. We saw sales at Kmart jump.
It was all of these women quietly supporting her in the only way they knew how to, which was to buy her stuff.
Sarah Lacy: I’m curious, did you see parallels in that or have flashbacks to that both watching the Presidential election, and also, in your own career. You’ve had a very up-and-down career.
You had this job at AOL where you running some of the sexiest brands, but it was still AOL and struggling to turn things around. You green-lit all these amazing series for ABC, but then they came to air after you were gone. Gilt Groupe was reinvented commerce but then struggled to get public. Have you experienced some of that as well?
Susan Lyne: I don’t think of most of those as being something that was really because I was female.
Although, and I do want to come back to the Hillary piece of this because it infuriated me, but there’s no question about the ABC experience where I was replaced literally two weeks before we were announcing a schedule that included “Desperate Housewives“, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost” — and we had recently launched “The Bachelor“. Two of those shows are still, 14 years later, a key part of the lineup for the network.
My boss had been fired. My immediate boss had been fired about three months, two months before all of this came down.
There were three or four guys at the company who had been reporting to my boss as well who got together and realized that if I was gone they could split the baby in a way that gave them significantly more power. Despite the fact that initially Bob Iger said he was going to give me much more, they were able to convince him that he shouldn’t go that way.
I was too much of a girl at the time to fight it. I saw it to some extent, and I had more than one person come to me and say, “Hey, this is happening. You got to fight it. You have to rally your troops.” I said, “I’m not going to do that. Bob’s told me he’s going to give me X, Y, Z, and I’m just going to trust that it’s going to work.” Obviously, it didn’t.
It was a really good lesson that you can’t sit back, and be passive, and assume that by being the good girl, you’re going to succeed. That sometimes it takes a fight.
Sarah Lacy: Where were you in your personal life during that time? Were you already a mother?
Susan Lyne: Yeah.
Sarah Lacy: I’m, in part, asking because I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to work at Disney if you’re a mother as someone who just spent $3,000 on Disneyland tickets yesterday.
Susan Lyne: Truthfully, I didn’t necessarily get a significant discount, but it was an amazing place to be working when I had little kids. I was at Disney for almost a decade. It was only the last three years that I was in this role running prime time at ABC. For, I’d say, seven years, every spring break, I would pack up my daughters, and we would go to Disney World.
It’s among their fondest memories. I’ve got pictures of my older daughter, who’s now 31, the first time that she saw Minnie Mouse at Disney World, and just the look on her face. There’s nothing better than to see a four-year-old or a three-year-old seeing those characters for the first time.
It does give you a real sense of what a great brand is able to do. That emotional connection you can make with a customer is incredible.
Sarah Lacy: From Disney through “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives”, have you wrestled with how women are being depicted in media? Was it something that you thought about a lot?
Susan Lyne: Honestly, I knew “The Bachelor” was going to be successful, or I had a pretty good sense that it would.
We had a fantastic woman running alternative series at the company at the time. She was really the person who championed “The Bachelor“, and not only “The Bachelor” — but things like “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” and “Dancing with the Stars“. She just put a lot of these lasting shows onto the air.
I was mortified by it at the time. Even though I was probably in my late 40s at that point or early 50s at that point, I was afraid of what was going to happen when my mother saw it.
It’s so incredible. We were also able to really shift the way that we thought about developing shows.
You have to go back to this time, which was the 2002, 2003, 2004 era, when every single television network had essentially decided that the only shows that were going to be successful were these procedural shows. That men would not watch shows for women, but women would watch shows for men, which meant that the vast majority of television development was targeting a male audience.
The 2003-2004 development season, I walked into a meeting that was underway where my head of comedy was just bemoaning the fact that “Sex in the City” was going off the air. She said, “All my shows are gone.”
It was that “my shows”, the shows that she and her friends would get together and either watch together, or they would talk about afterwards. “Ally McBeal“, and “Melrose Place“, and certainly “Sex in the City“. They just were no longer being made.
Out of that came a real focus on developing girl shows. We launched a couple of them out of that season. That was “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy“. We probably made another half dozen pilots that were, again, looking for that must-watch girl show.
One of the things that I think is really interesting and that is a tiny legacy I left behind is that ABC has really stuck with that. They have become the network, and it’s largely because of Shonda, but they’ve become the network that has pioneered powerful female characters and great storytelling.
They’re not always perfect characters. They’re not always likable characters, but by god, they’re great characters.
Sarah Lacy: They’re not always white and in their 20s. That, to me, is what is so powerful about it.
Susan Lyne: Yeah, it’s fantastic. They’re still really the only network doing that.
Sarah Lacy: Now you mentioned Shonda, which it’s so amazing how many huge personalities, male and female, you’ve worked with in media. Now she’s headed over to Netflix.
I’m curious what you think about Disney saying they’re going to go their own way and Netflix answering back by taking her. How do think it’s going to work out, and do you think it was a smart move on ABC’s part?
Susan Lyne: I don’t think those two things were connected.
Sarah Lacy: It was a little too quick.
Susan Lyne: They happened at the same time. I’m sure Shonda has been in conversation with Netflix for months and months to get to this place where she was comfortable making that jump. There’s no question that a Netflix, and to some extent Amazon, can offer creative people a different kind of freedom than they could ever have working for a network.
ABC has been great to her. They literally turned over Thursday night to her. You can’t ask for more from network television. She even said that the fact that she had to do let’s call it 20, 22 episodes every season of her shows is, it’s a lot. You have to make sure that they fit into the formats that allow for advertising every 8 to 11, maybe 13 minutes.
It’s got major constrictions on it that you’re never going to have at a place like Netflix. She can tell stories at exactly the length that feels right to the narrative. That’s a huge luxury. I get completely why she’s doing it.
She’s going to be competing against 150 other shows that are being developed by Netflix every year, but she’s got a strong enough brand and a strong enough narrative style that she’s going to stand out no matter what. She doesn’t really need to have a broadcast slot in order to be successful.
Sarah Lacy: What about from Disney’s point of view? Do you think their doing their own streaming thing is the right move?
Susan Lyne: If you have assets like they’ve got, you have a better shot at that than probably anybody else. I totally get why they think they at least have to try this. They’ve got ESPN, which despite the fact that it’s not growing anymore, is still a phenomenal brand.
There are literally only a half dozen TV channels or TV brands that people go to as opposed to going to watch a show. You go to watch ESPN. That’s a huge asset. That’s true for the Disney Channel too. They’ve got, between those two, they have significant assets for a household. You’ve got the kids covered, and you’ve got a good section of the adult audience covered with sports.
They have a shot. If they don’t do it now, then it’s just going to become more and more difficult.
Sarah Lacy: When reality TV started, I remember there was such a hand wringing about what this meant for culture, and the dumbing down of America, and how we were all going to aspire to just be people who wanted cameras pointed at us.
I remember being one of those people that was like, “Look, this is entertainment. It’s fun. People have said this at like every level of mass entertainment. You’re all freaking out.” Now we have Donald Trump in the White House.
Do you blame reality TV? Is there any part of how that’s played out that gives you a little bit of pause?
Susan Lyne: There is no question that he built a national brand among Americans through television. There’s absolutely 100 percent he would not be president today if he had not had that television slot. Now can you say we should not have reality television as a result? No one could have known that. God knows there are probably 100 other people who would also be horrible presidents.
I can’t think of them at the moment, but it is interesting. I’ve gone through love-hate relationships with reality television since the beginning. I would say 10 percent of my television viewing is reality TV. I just think there’s so much good narrative storytelling at the moment that I can’t get away from that in order to watch the other stuff.
I thought “American Idol” was just genius.
Sarah Lacy: It was uplifting. A lot of reality TV feels like tearing down. American Idol was, once you got past the auditions, it was uplifting. I could talk about TV for the rest of this time, but I want to talk about motherhood.
Tell us a little bit about your kids. How old were you when you had them? What were you doing in your career? What was that transition like?
Susan Lyne: First of all, I’ve got two stepdaughters who were two and three when I met my husband, and so I was at the time, I guess, 30. They were a big part of my life before my own daughters were born. They were six and eight when my oldest daughter arrived. I was 35 when I had her. She’s 31 now.
Both of them are the lights of my life. I can’t believe that I waited as long as I did to have children because they’re just so extraordinary. I can’t imagine what my life was like before I had them.
My oldest daughter is going to have another baby, a baby, my first grandchild, a baby girl, in the next week or 10 days. I’m in bliss phase at this moment that I get to see another newborn baby girl that comes from this line.
Look, I was well established in my career when I had my first daughter. It was right before I started “Premiere“. My second daughter was born about a year after I started Premiere. Premiere was a magazine about the movies that I launched in 1987 and launched it for News Corp. I spent many years in the magazine industry before I went to television or to anything else.
I was the Managing Editor of the “Village Voice” from 1978 to 1981, which was an amazing moment to be at that publication. I’m very sad that they just announced that they’re going to stop the print edition of the Voice.
At the time, back then, it was must reading for anyone who was young and in New York City. It had the most extraordinary roster of writers.
For a 27-year-old, I was coming off another magazine that was far more staid where I had been managing editor. I was recruited to come into the Voice. It was like wrangling wild animals every week, but it was incredibly exciting. I was able to bring in a couple of writers that I thought rounded out the mix.
I did that and then a quick segue into being a development executive for Jane Fonda. Then when I was leaving that job is when I had my first daughter and then started percolating Premiere, which came in part out of the two, three years I spent working for Jane and hearing a lot of “no’s” from different studios as we were developing projects.
I got to know the culture and the town pretty well. That became the basis for starting Premiere, which was a magazine about the movies that covered not just movie stars but the whole ecosystem and really allowed people to get inside the world of movie making and to keep up with Hollywood as a small town with a limited number of key players and a lot of great narratives.
Sarah Lacy: You’ve made so many interesting jumps in your career. You made magazine to digital and TV, which is even another form. You also have gone from big operational jobs at huge companies to funding startups, which is something that a lot of people have had a very hard time with.
What do you think it is about you where you’ve been able to do things that, make transitions other people haven’t?
Susan Lyne: I think that there are certain things I’m good at that helped me in each of these worlds, and also, probably helped me to make the transition.
I’m good at recruiting people. I’m good at getting a great team of people working around me. I’m pretty good at getting good work out of people. A lot of my success in these various roles was due to having people who were the real stars, who were working under me, who were just great at some aspect of that business.
The other part is that I’ve been really clear with people when I’ve moved into a new role what I didn’t know. One of the big mistakes that a lot of people make, and certainly a lot of guys make going into a new industry, a new sector, a new medium, is not wanting to say I don’t get this, or you’ve got to help me understand how this part of it works.
It’s the best thing you can do going into a new job is to say, “I need you to help me understand this. I need you to help me get over the awkward first six months where I’m learning this. I will tell you the things I think I can immediately add value with, but I’m going to count on you.”
Most people are more than willing to help guide you, help educate you, and help you get through what is, there’s no question that the first six months of any new job like that is scary.
Sarah Lacy: How did you either worry or fear that motherhood would change you, either you or you professionally, and how did it?
Susan Lyne: I did not want to have children until very soon before I got pregnant. I was laser focused on building a career and making sure that I could not only support myself but that I felt like I could have an impact.
It was when I was about 33 that I thought I want a baby. I really want to have children. That moment of embracing something that I had run away from, largely because the world that I came out of, I went to a private school in the suburb outside of Boston, and the women who I went to school with, very few of them ended up having careers.
I was horribly afraid that the whole idea of getting married and having children meant that I would be relegated to a life like the one that I saw around me growing up where women were just absolutely not part of the larger conversation, the social, political, cultural conversation that was going on around the country.
My fear until that moment when I thought I want to do this was that it would stop my forward momentum. It would make me a sidekick character.
You know this. The moment my daughter was born, I realized I had never loved any person, anything. The amount of emotion you have for a baby is just incredible. I’ve never worried about it since I actually had children because your world expands, your mind expands, your energy expands to be able to do so much more as a mother than you did before that.
Sarah Lacy: I feel exactly the same way. We only have a few more minutes, but earlier I asked you about Hillary, and you said you wanted to come back to it.
Susan Lyne: I was one of those people who was totally blindsided by how the election turned out. I was 100 percent convinced that Hillary was going to win. Some of that was because of the echo chambers on social media. Every single person who posted on my Facebook was a Hillary supporter.
I thought she had killed him in the debates. I thought that even though she has never been incredibly comfortable in front of a television audience or even in front of a big room that she did just fine on that stuff, and that ideas and experience were going to win out. I was totally thrown by it.
The generation right after mine, and I was an activist when I was at Berkeley. I was an early feminist. It was just in my blood to get out in the street and march and to say I believe in X, and I don’t believe in Y. Then there was a whole generation of women who denied being feminist, who said, “That battle’s over.”
The really hopeful thing I see right now is young women embracing this idea that not only is it not over, it’s just beginning. I think they can have a huge impact. I see it with my own daughters. I see it with their friends. This is a moment where a lot of 20-somethings, and 30-somethings, and teenagers are being activated by what they’re seeing around them.
That’s a big positive.