By the time she was in her mid-twenties, Monica Kang had a master’s degree in strategic studies from Johns Hopkins University and was working in the highly competitive world of Washington politics. She had landed a job focusing on nuclear non-proliferation—a field she was passionate about—but found herself becoming increasingly unhappy. “I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I did something just for me: not my boyfriend, a friend, or family,” says the 29-year-old entrepreneur. “I started taking just a few minutes a day to write, take a walk, or do something I enjoyed.” Those small, incremental steps began to shift how she felt about both her life and her work. Instead of stressing out because of a tight deadline, she could step back and look for a more creative solution.

WeWork Creator

“The reason I started to love my job again was I shifted the way I thought about it. That changed the way I do everything.”

Kang’s personal experience became the unexpected catalyst for a massive career change. In 2016 she launched InnovatorsBox, an education company that teaches individuals and businesses how to open up to their own creativity. In a short time, the WeWork Manhattan Laundry member has become a leader in her field, speaking at six conferences, sponsoring 45 workshops and networking events, and turning her passion into a viable business. “When people realize how powerful creativity is,” she says, “they become empowered, better communicators, better at meeting challenges, and eventually have more opportunities.”

Photos by Pretty Instant

Seven years ago, Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was living a very different life. A professional soccer player in New Zealand, Brown was on the brink of retirement from the game with only an inkling of what might come next. But that inkling became a product that is the backbone of a reportedly $1.4 billion business.

While playing soccer, Brown found himself yearning for a sneaker that was simpler than the ones he wore on the field—one that was as straightforward in its design as it was to manufacture. As it turned out, it didn’t exist. Could Brown create one?

“I literally went on Google, found a shoe factory, and visited it in the middle of one of my off-seasons, just because I was curious,” Brown told Benjamin Landy, senior editor at Vanity Fair’s The Hive, during a recent talk at Made by We in New York. “This whole thing really started as a curiosity project—to solve a problem that was only my own.”

Enter Allbirds, which in just three short years has spearheaded the direct-to-consumer (DTC) retail disruption. For Brown and his co-founder, biotechnology engineer Joey Zwillinger, less has always been more. The sneaker startup launched with just one product (its now-signature Wool Runners) largely composed of one material (wool) sourced from Brown’s native New Zealand. It didn’t release a second shoe until a year later, and a third and fourth a year after that. Today, Allbirds has grown to more than 200 employees, moving into a 13,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighborhood last fall.

Brown says none of this would be possible if Allbirds hadn’t committed to simplicity from the beginning. But no matter what stage a business is in, entrepreneurs can incorporate that mind-set into their own operations. Here’s how.

Benjamin Landy (left) and Tim Brown (right) pose together after their discussion about building Allbirds’s business from the ground up.

Seek answers to simple questions. Brown stumbled into the world of footwear when he wondered why the simplest things were the way they were—and wasn’t satisfied by the responses he received.

“I started asking really, really simple questions, and no one could give me a good answer, like, ‘What’s a size 9?’ ‘Well, it depends. It’s different for Adidas and it’s different for Nike,’” he remembers. “I was going down this rabbit hole of understanding the industry through fresh eyes.”

Brown claims that his and Zwillinger’s inexperience became a competitive advantage as they worked to clarify some of the more convoluted aspects of traditional footwear, like, yes, sizing.

Don’t overcomplicate gut decisions. Before teaming up with Zwillinger, Brown enrolled in a 10-week entrepreneurship course at Northwestern University, where he began to hone his idea for a wool sneaker. His professor wasn’t convinced by the concept but, witnessing Brown’s drive, encouraged him to pursue it.

“‘For whatever reason, of all the other 50 young people in this class, you seem to be driven to try to solve this particular problem, so you should throw it out into the world,’” Brown recalls him saying.

That gut-check led Brown to move past his initial doubts, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with Zwillinger that the pair decided to build Allbirds full-time. They made the decision to launch the company over the course of just one weekend spent together in San Francisco.

“It was one of those quick decisions—usually the best ones are,” says Brown. “We made that decision without raising any money, but we decided that the vision was big and we wanted it to have a maximum impact.”

Live or die by doing one or two things exceptionally well. In retail, the direct-to-consumer experience is all about specialization. Allbirds brand launched with just one shoe and sold that same one shoe for the first 14 months. To even get to that point, though, Brown recalls the product going through “more than 200” tweaks and variations.

“That insane focus is probably something more akin to a specialist butcher, or a florist, or a cheesemonger,” he says. “We were coming in to solve a particular problem and we were going to curate our experience in a very, very specific way. We were going to live and die by that solution.”

Do more by delegating. When Allbirds raised its first round of funding in 2015 and the company began to scale, Brown and Zwillinger were still touching every nook and cranny of the business, from answering phones to packing shipments. That couldn’t last.

“The idea is that you hire really smart people who know what they’re doing better than you, and you’ve got to somehow find a way to do more by letting go,” says Brown. “I think anyone who’s been through that process probably finds it a little bit hard. “

Make business decisions simply because they’re the right thing to do. Allbirds’ shoes are sustainably crafted throughout every step of the process, from the Merino wool that’s sheared in New Zealand to the final pair of shoes that hit the shop floor. But Brown argues that’s hardly the most interesting thing about the company.

“Don’t make a sustainable product. Make a great product and make it as sustainable as possible, and look for the competitive advantages where you can do that,” says Brown. With the reality of climate change, Brown believes businesses must be part of the solution by finding better ways to make the things we use. “If we can put a man on the moon, we can find a way to make a T-shirt more sustainably.”

Get comfortable with the word “no.” Brown attributes the brand’s success to saying no to “97 percent of things”—97 percent of opportunities and partnerships and meetings and coffees—so as not to stray from the path he and Zwillinger forged back in 2015.

On the micro level, that includes setting up boundaries between their work and the rest of their lives. Particularly because both co-founders are new fathers, this has been of utmost importance as Allbirds has scaled. “There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list, says Brown. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it. Try to keep something that’s very, very complicated very, very simple.”

Photos by Liz Devine/The We Company

The odds didn’t start out in Marcus Samuelsson’s favor. Orphaned at 3 when a tuberculosis epidemic in his birthplace of Ethiopia took his mother, Samuelsson and his older sister were eventually adopted by a Swedish family. But, as the chef and restaurateur put it during the “Team Awesome” session at WeWork’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in January, “sometimes the worst thing that ever happened to you can be the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Not only did this life-changing event take him from a place where food was scarce to where it was abundant, Samuelsson says, but he and his sister found a home with an eclectic brood of different faces and personalities (including a grandmother who taught him to forage and use the best parts of the land for sustenance). This environment forever put him at ease around people of different backgrounds, and also instilled in him a lack of fear of failing or asking for help—which proved useful when Samuelsson eventually launched his restaurant business.

Samuelsson says his upbringing is why he gravitates toward open-minded and forward-thinking people. As a young man, he worked his way up the ranks in some of Europe’s toughest kitchens before breaking into the New York City restaurant scene. There he connected with Andrew Chapman, his eventual restaurant co-founder and investor. When the celebrity-chef trend hit big in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the two of them hatched a plan to open an eclectic comfort-food restaurant in Harlem that was about more than “filling your restaurant with more than the 1 percent of the 1 percent,” he says, a place “where people of all colors and beliefs can come.”

“Entrepreneurship is about how high are you willing to dream, how low are you willing to go, and can you execute?” says Marcus Samuelsson.

So Samuelsson made the leap—going from executive chef at Aquavit to opening Red Rooster uptown on Malcolm X Boulevard. “Entrepreneurship is about how high are you willing to dream, how low are you willing to go, and can you execute?” Samuelsson says. “Urban America operates with tons of entrepreneurs. Living in the community made me extremely aware of this.”

Samuelsson was more than willing, but he admits there were rough spots: He remembers being intimidated to seek out an established architect or designer because of their limited budget. So he reached out to other small-business entrepreneurs, asking for their help with these searches as a cost-cutting measure that would yield exposure and clients for everyone involved.

Samuelsson and Chapman knew it wasn’t enough to have delicious, innovative food—with Red Rooster, they also wanted to move the media needle. So they hosted dinners for brands like Nike and Bon Appetit magazine. They also started a food website, Samuelsson says, rather than wait for the occasional drop-in from The New York Times and other mainstream outlets. “Most black narratives and conversations aren’t told by us; they’re told by others,” he says. “It was important for us to do our own storytelling.

Red Rooster opened in December 2010, and in short order, it became a favorite destination for locals and celebrities and created jobs for the people who live there. Nearly 10 years later, Samuelsson says that 60 to 70 percent of Red Rooster’s staff still lives in the area. Attributes he looks for in team members include “passion and a level of attitude [that they] bring to the table.”

“You take the staff with you on your journey,” Samuelsson says of his team. “Building the tribe [is important], but also taking people with you is key. And listening to the staff.”

Samuelsson notes that Red Rooster and the WeWork Harlem location have something in common: “WeWork isn’t just improving your community; it’s about building other communities,” and likewise, “the good thing about a restaurant is you touch more communities. Breaking bread will always be a fresh idea.”

“As [society] gets more tech-savvy and as we get more people on the fringes not talking to each other, this idea of making stuff, telling stories through food, and listening to different narratives—that is still an incredible idea,” Samuelsson says.

It’s one that keeps Samuelsson busy. “You can never sleep on your business,” he says. “You have to have this constant idea of ‘how can I work in my business?’”

Luckily, Samuelsson can always find the good, even in the bad.

While its millions of customers were looking for romance, one of the largest online dating apps in the U.S. changed its status to “in a relationship.”

Hinge, a dating app that says it’s “designed to be deleted,” announced a couple of days before Valentine’s Day that it is now wholly owned by Match Group. The terms of the sale were not disclosed.

This news means that almost all the big-name dating apps—including Match, Tinder, and OkCupid—are now owned by the same company. The only major player Match Group hasn’t scooped up is Bumble, where women are the first to swipe right. (Match Group sued Bumble last year, alleging that it stole its intellectual property; Bumble countersued for harassment.)

All this consolidation isn’t necessarily bad news for those looking for love. Match Group has been hands-off with the companies it acquires, encouraging them to maintain their own cultures. Each of the companies it’s bought attracts a certain demographic—Hinge, for example, does well with urban, educated millennial women—that Match Group wants to capture.

Tim MacGougan, chief product officer at Hinge, says Match Group made it clear it wants Hinge to be distinctive from the rest of its portfolio.

“Tinder celebrates single life,” he says. “Match feels matrimonial. Hinge is different. Our members are people in their 20s and 30s who are looking for meaningful connections with other people.”

Breaking away from the pack

In two separate panel discussions held this week at WeWork—one hosted by Flatiron School, the other co-sponsored by the nonprofit Out in Tech—engineers, executives, and founders of a range of dating apps talked about how they distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded field. Hinge, for instance, considers itself an expert on what makes a good date. It even reimburses its employees up to $200 a month if they’ll post about their dates on the app.

“People here have been very creative,” McGougan says. “They try something new and share it with our members.”

Hinge, which has had an estimated 3 million downloads, even sends followups to members who have met through the app, asking how things went. This information will eventually allow it to make better matches.

At OkCupid, the staff puts a lot of effort into making sure members are compatible before they even meet. It asks members hard-hitting questions that might be a deal-breaker for others scanning their profile. One example: “Is climate change real?”

“In the past few years, people have shown they care a lot about politics,” says engineering manager Jordan Guggenheim. “So we have been asking members questions like, ‘Do you prefer that your date shares your political views?’”

It’s a hot-button topic, but one that reveals a lot about people. “These simple questions carry a lot of weight in terms of who people choose to date long-term,” Guggenheim says.

Guggenheim—a graduate of Flatiron School—says he’s proud that the company remains ahead of the curve on issues like gender identity.

“We absolutely take the stance that we support more than the binary gender options,” he says. “We were one of the first apps to offer 22 different genders and 12 different orientations. We want you to be able to best express how you identify.”

Creating a safe space

As the larger apps are all being gobbled up by the same parent company, smaller apps see a chance to distinguish themselves.

Morgen Bromell, CEO of a newly relaunched dating app “for queer people of all genders” called Thurst, appreciates that mainstream platforms are becoming more inclusive. But being able to check a box isn’t enough.

“I was bummed that there wasn’t a platform for queer people, trans people, and nonbinary people,” says Bromell. “We needed a place where people didn’t feel fetishized, where they wouldn’t be targeted for who they are.”

“I want to dispel the idea that the relationships you make on an app are less important than those you make in person,” says Thurst CEO Morgen Bromell.

Bromell launched a beta version of the app in 2016, but almost immediately, trolls lashed out at users. The team spent the next year working on creating a more secure space for their community.

As the app has developed, it’s also become a social network where members create close friendships.

“I want to dispel the idea that the relationships you make on an app are less important than those you make in person,” says Bromell. “A relationship you start online can be just as valuable.”

Eric Silverberg, CEO of Scruff, says that the gay dating app fulfills several different purposes.

“Is Scruff a hookup app? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “Is it a social network? Yes, absolutely. And it’s everything in between.”

When the platform launched in 2010, Scruff was among the first gay dating apps. The field has gotten a lot more crowded since then, so Silverberg has to keep attracting members with new features.

“We’ve been beta testing a live queer quiz show on its app called ‘Hosting,’” he says. “When we saw HQ launch a little over a year ago, it got us excited about the notion of doing something live. What if we got everyone on Scruff to log on at the same time and have a shared experience?”

Silverberg says that the app’s most important function is perhaps to be a kind of virtual community center, providing its members with access to information they might not otherwise know how to find.

“We’re very proud of the fact that Scruff has partnered with thousands of LGBTQ nonprofits and health organizations to get their messages in front of our community,” he says. “One of our responsibilities to the gay and queer community is to forge those connections.”

Photos by Frank Mullaney

It’s not every day that the assistant who welcomes you to a meeting is furry and walks on all fours. But on the day I meet Marigay McKee inside her bustling WeWork space on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, McKee’s 4-year-old black border terrier named Sutter greets me just before her owner.

It’s a warm welcome, but I’m really here to catch up with McKee, whose two-decade-plus career as a corporate retail executive changed course in 2016 when she decided to launch her own luxury consultancy, MM Luxe Consulting, and later, venture-capital firm Fernbrook.

No stranger to the demands of a busy schedule, the British expat worked as the president of Saks Fifth Avenue for just over a year, leaving by 2015 due to cultural differences. Before that, she spent 15 years as chief merchant at iconic London department store Harrods. (Fun fact: During her time at Harrods, McKee makes a cameo on the U.K. version of “The Apprentice”—season one, episode four, should you be interested.) Those roles are part of the reason McKee welcomes the move away from 14-hour workdays to those perhaps slightly shorter, with more flexibility, and on this particular day, dog-friendly workspaces.

At first, MM Luxe brought her to “small-scale endeavors,” as McKee describes them, in the beauty and fashion retail worlds.. Eventually, she landed larger, more lucrative accounts, like the $25 billion Hudson Yards redevelopment project, which includes commercial and residential properties.

It’s fitting that our conversation is taking place inside a glass conference room, acting as a sort of reverse fishbowl; we see other WeWork members jaunting from their offices to take phone meetings and coffee chats in the lively kitchen area. The commotion is just the kind of energy rush she lives for these days. (It also happens to be a place better suited to take meetings than her townhouse, where she started MM Luxe. In 2018 alone, MM Luxe met with 200 companies inside WeWork and invested in 11 of them.)

“I said to my team—they’re 25, 26, and 27, ‘Let’s go to this building on Fifth [Avenue,]’ which is tiny and very expensive, and they said, ‘Let’s go to WeWork,’” McKee remembers. By 2017, the MM Luxe team (and soon after, Fernbrook) would set up shop in there. “I love being able to work with young people, surrounded by young people, where someone will knock on the window and ask me to give them advice,” she says. “For me, 50 is the new 30. I lead a younger life now than I did 20 years ago.”

How so? For one thing, she’s spent the past six years adding to a list of athletic accomplishments that would make anyone feel lazy, including trekking through the Himalayas and climbing Mounts Kilimanjaro and Everest. She’s an avid SoulCycler, has traded in her morning scones for organic granola, and insists that transcendental meditation is a requisite for her mental health.

She’s also a fan of any number of shorthand mnemonic devices and acronyms to help her keep track of to-do tasks and decide in whom and what she’d like to invest. There are the five “P’s” she manages at Fernbrook: “People, positioning, pricing, place, and of course, product.”

There are also the “E’s” and “S’s” of retail: “experience, environment, and emotion,” plus “selection, service, substance, special, and streamlined, together with a solid digital backdrop.” Finally, the five “H’s” of people in whom she decides to invest: “hard work, humility, honesty, and sense of humor. Oh, and humble, too.”

These are the kinds of principles McKee, who said she wanted to go into business for herself after spending decades serving the needs of billion-dollar companies in which she wasn’t figuratively invested, applies to her work today. Taking the plunge toward self-employment would be daunting for anyone, but McKee says she had three or four clients ready to work with MM Luxe before she even left Saks, making the transition from corporate to startup life frictionless.

After MM Luxe found its footing in early 2018, McKee decided her consulting work, generally limited to the retail world, also limited what she could have an impact on. McKee’s husband, an investment banker and lawyer, planted the seed. “‘Marigay, you’re generating cash and you’re doing well, but you’re not creating wealth,’” she remembers him saying. “I thought, he’s right. I need to do a fund where I can invest in all the young brands and young talent that can’t afford to have me as a consultant, but where I can be a free consultant to them if I invest in their brand.”

Although McKee has broadened her scope as a venture capitalist outside the retail world (Fernbrook invests in everything from vegan cafés to artificial intelligence), her retail consulting work allows her to keep her finger on the culture. McKee believes the traditional department store won’t totally die off, though it will need to be reinvented; and while retail will move primarily online, brands will need to exist in the physical world (see the three “E’s” for the reasons why). Concept stores that are “destinations” will flourish, she says, and stores that exude a private-club feel will be better off than those that don’t.

If MM Luxe is her firstborn, Fernbrook, she hopes, will solidify her legacy. McKee co-manages Fernbrook with Bill Detwiler, her partner, and the two are raising a round of seed funding to support their portfolio of a little over a dozen companies.

“I’m in the middle of raising a $50 million fund, and that just sounds so grownup to me,” McKee says. “I never even thought I was grown up enough to go on a board,” noting that she serves on two in New York: cultural center the Shed and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, commonly called The Center. “When they asked me, I thought, ‘Am I old enough to do this?’”

Age notwithstanding, McKee has not only reimagined where she sees herself going—with at least another 10 to 15 years building Fernbrook, she says—but how she plans on getting there.

“Gone are the days someone works in an office from 9 until 6 for 30 years, takes their two-week holiday every year, and goes to the same supermarket,” McKee says. “Variety is the spice of life, and life is getting more spicy.”

Photo courtesy of Marigay McKee