Mixing Friendship With Business: The Co-Founders of Wonder Media Network on Being Their Own—and Each Other’s—Bosses
December 07, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Fittingly, Wonder Media Network (WMN) co-founders Jenny Kaplan and Shira Atkins became friends through an entrepreneurship class at Brown University, and they stayed close after each moving to New York to pursue different career opportunities. Last summer, they decided to quit their jobs and start WMN, an audio-focused media company that kicked off with an ambitious podcast series, “Women Belong in the House,” about the record number of women who ran for office in 2018. Here, they talk about the fallacy of work/life balance, the upside of working with a best friend, and how they learned to talk about money.
On First Jobs, Untold Stories, and Taking Risks:
Jenny: I’ve been obsessed with politics my whole life. It’s what my family talked about at the dinner table, and both my parents were involved in our community in Greensboro, NC. After college, I worked at Bloomberg News for four years. I think we can all agree that it’s been a very heavy time in the news cycle. Still, I kept seeing stories that weren’t being told, ones that showed a more optimistic side to our country. I was particularly interested in the record number of activists who were organizing, and the women who were running for office for the first time. What finally pushed me to make a career change was my mom’s decision to run for Congress. Last December, she stepped up to run in North Carolina’s 13th district, and I thought, “If she’s going to take this huge risk, I want to do something really important, too.” She didn’t end up winning, but I’m more inspired by her than ever.
Shira: During college, I studied Russian literature and thought I’d go into academia. I also practiced yoga seriously and created a community that became the largest yoga student group in the country. When I was graduating, I was approached by a philanthropist who wanted to create a yoga community online. I was her first hire, and I got to help her start a company. After about two and a half years, I decided to go out on my own. I started talking to Jenny about business ideas and she came up the idea for Wonder Media Network. I feel like anything Jenny touches turns to gold, so I hitched my horse to her wagon.
On Quitting Their jobs and Mixing Business With Friendship:
Jenny: I was still a reporter at Bloomberg when I got the idea for Wonder Media Network. I thought it could be a new kind of media company, one that was audio first and focused on women. Shira and I formed an LLC. After we figured out ownership agreements and contracts, we got down to business, reaching out to people and booking interviews. I haven’t had a day off since early July. But I’m so in love with the work we’re doing.
Shira: The most nerve-wracking thing was learning how to navigate a friendship and business partnership—it took a lot of care at the beginning. We had exhaustive conversations about what would happen in worst case scenarios—how we could protect our friendship and also be really honest with each other.
On Talking Money and Salary:
Jenny: Many of our conversations about contracts were difficult. But you can’t start a company without discussing money. We don’t ever talk about money with friends—how much we need, how much we make, how much we want. But in our case, it was a real asset that we were such good friends already, because we were able to cut out the posturing that can happen in a lot of professional negotiations. Instead, we broke the ice by having more philosophical discussions about money—how we grew up with it, and what we think we need in order to feel comfortable.
Shira: I had been growing my consultancy and pretending that I was comfortable charging $10,000 monthly retainers to multiple brands at the same time. I felt nervous about saying, “You should give me $12,000 a month so that I can give you a brand strategy document.” But companies said yes, and I realized that’s what I’m worth. That experience emboldened me—I liked making money. When I spoke to Jenny about how much we should make, the strategy was a little different: We thought about what we could eventually take to investors and say, “This is what we value ourselves at.”
On Creating Boundaries, or Not:
Jenny: The line between my life inside and outside of work is blurred, but I think having a certain amount of crossover between your work and social life is a strength. When we started out, everyone we knew helped us with whatever connections they thought might be useful. What was interesting, however, was how much some women undervalued their own networks. I spoke with at least five very successful women who said, “I love what you’re doing, but I don’t really have the qualifications to help you. However…” and then they would connect me with five other people who were incredibly useful. I never spoke with a man who said, “Well, I’m not really qualified or connected enough to give you anything.”
Shira: I enjoy being in a position to help and hire people I know socially. As we advance in our careers, we get to be more active in advocating for each other. It’s very gratifying.
On Finding Time For Yoga and Netflix While Running A Startup:
Jenny: I think we have seasons in our lives, and at certain points, work/life balance is more important than others. For me, it doesn’t feel good to take much time off right now. It’s not that I never do, but I don’t really need a two-day weekend to feel energized. Instead, I might take an afternoon where I read a book that has nothing to do with work, or listen to a hilarious podcast, or take a walk. Rather than subscribing to other people’s ideas about work/life balance, I’ve been trying to understand what kind of balance I need every day.
Shira: I practice yoga every day, and it’s a sacred time for me. I used to practice for two hours every morning, and now it’s one hour whenever I can squeeze it in. Ideally, I’d do it first thing, but sometimes I’ll wake up and say, “There’s too much to do,” and I don’t get to it until later in the day. But it’s still a wonderful hour that always feels like a real treat.
Photographs by Rich Gilligan. Styling by Chris Walsh.