Melinda Garvey didn’t dream of one day becoming an entrepreneur.
But when the idea for Austin Woman Magazine came about, she had to run with. “It was one of those lightning bolt moments where I just knew,” she says below. “I heard the idea and I was like, this is what I’m supposed to do.”
15 years, countless milestones, and hundreds of cover women later, Austin Woman’s core mission to empower, support and connect women continues to be as strong as it was on day one. Now, Melinda has found herself back in startup mode with her second business, On The Dot — a daily audible newsletter designed to empower women around the world through stories of relatable role models.
Read on to learn how the idea for Austin Woman came about, Melinda’s thoughts on entrepreneurship, and why she thinks finding relatable role models and motivating other women are the keys to success.
What is your background and what were you doing before Austin Woman?
My background is in sales and marketing and started out in an ad agency. This was way back in the 90s; I was at a big agency in Washington DC. And then I was in the publishing side of things and worked at a daily newspaper.
I had actually just moved to Austin and was working for a company (that I won’t name), and let’s just say it was really the impetus that launched me into entrepreneurship, something I had never thought of before. Because of that super miserable situation, sometimes you find yourself like ‘how did I get here? I had this great career, I’ve moved up, everything’s been great’ And so when I look back, although it was just 8 months of horrible company, people, stress, I never would be where I am today cause sometimes things happen like that. I had to be in that situation where it was so off that when the idea was sort of presented, I latched on to that.
What gave you the idea to start Austin Woman?
The truth is, I was out with a bunch of girlfriends one night and we were having a few glasses of wine, as you do, and I was complaining about said job and going ‘what am I going to do, I have to get out of here, this is horrible’ and one of my girlfriends said ‘hey, you have a publishing background! I was just in Des Moines Iowa and there was this really cool magazine there called Des Moines Woman. And no one in Austin is talking about women.’ This was in the early 2000s during the first tech boom, and it was men, men, men. Nothing about women. You didn’t ever see women written about.
It was just so funny, and I can remember it like it was yesterday cause I never thought of running my own business and it wasn’t like I had this dream of entrepreneurship, I didn’t have entrepreneurs in my family. It was one of those lightning bolt moments where I just knew. I heard the idea and I was like, this is what I’m supposed to do. I literally woke up the next day, started writing a business plan, two weeks later I left my job, seven months later we launched the first issue of Austin Woman in September 2002. I think that so many people think that they have to have the idea first or they have to be born and bred an entrepreneur. Sometimes it comes from the craziest place.
What was the most challenging part of getting started?
There are lots of things. I could list them, and they’re the challenges everybody has — all the legal paperwork and figuring out accounting — but honestly I think the most difficult part is believing in yourself. It’s great when one day you’re fired up and then five minutes later you’re like ‘what am I doing?’ It’s a roller coaster the whole time. That’s the part that throws people off. They don’t know that that’s coming. And so they freak out or they fail or they make decisions that they shouldn’t make because they’re panicking.
So it’s really like, how do you keep yourself centered, how do you keep your mindset straight or on track. That’s the challenge, and quite frankly, that’s the challenge in continuing to run a business or to grow a business. It’s a challenge for me starting my second business. I thought, ‘I’ve done this before’ but I have those same feelings 15 years into being an entrepreneur. I don’t think that ever goes away.
What has been the most unexpected part of running Austin Woman?
I think that maybe a surprise, but a really really good surprise, or an affirmation, was the impact. It feeds me like you wouldn’t believe. People come up to me at events like, ‘I read this story and it changed my life’ or ‘I made this decision to do xyz because of this story’ or ‘I loved reading about her.’ I never ever go to an event where someone doesn’t come up and say ‘Thank you for what you do. You’re championing these women’ and I really feel so proud of that. That’s all I really care about. The day I stop hearing that, I’ll know we’re off track somehow.
We’ve really stayed true to our core mission, and true to supporting and engaging and empowering women through these stories of relatable role models. Which is really what On the Dot is all about. The extension and the why behind On the Dot is, we’ve been doing this in Austin in a magazine, long-form for 15 years. And I’ve seen the impact, I know what’s happened. I’ll go to conferences across the country and meet all these great women and the first thing they say is, ‘How do I find relatable role models? How do I find mentors? How do I get my story told?’ Because this doesn’t exist in all but literally a handful of cities across the country. Which is really the impetus of why I launched On The Dot.
I felt like women around the globe need to have these role models. I started researching and found out that the number one issue facing the advancement of women is the lack of access to relatable role models. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. So the others — inequality of pay, lack of access to capital, lack of access to continuing education, networks — those all exist and are up there, but number one is relatable role models. Seeing a Sheryl Sandberg or a Marissa Mayer isn’t the same. They’re great people, don’t get me wrong; I like reading about them but I don’t look at them and go ‘Oh now I see how I could get there.’ It’s too much of a leap. Where do you really find the kind of women we feature, the ones like you and me? 99% of the people we feature in On the Dot, much like Austin Woman, you’ve probably never heard of. But you read their story and you’re like, really? And that’s why it’s so important. So now we’re doing it every day, five days a week. It’s a global newsletter and it’s four minutes, and it’s audible.
What made you choose that route for On the Dot?
When you’re looking at doing something globally, your options narrow. That was number one, I had do something digitally. Women are so busy. We need something snackable, if you will. I was sort of gelling on how I wanted to do this and I was introduced to theSkimm. I loved a couple key things: it’s short, sweet, it’s just easy; they give it all to you. I love how they summarize it but they do it in a conversational, friendly, easy to digest manner. It’s like your girlfriends telling you about the headline news. On the Dot is like [talking to] your best girlfriends or your best female colleague. I knew I wanted that. And honestly the way I came up with it being audible, I was trying to read my phone (it was probably theSkimm) and putting on my mascara, hurrying, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wish someone would just read this to me.’ And I was like, that’s it. It needs to be audible. While you’re exercising in the morning, driving the kids to school, putting on your makeup, you can listen to it.
Since starting 15 years ago, how do you feel Austin Woman has played a role in leading the female-focused conversation in Austin?
I think that we have been a real connector of women for a long time. That’s always been our mission, to connect women. In a city that’s growing so fast, I think we are that thread of connectivity. You go inside the pages of the magazine and you might go, “Wait a minute, I just met this girl last night at this event, that’s so cool.” Or, you might be at an event a week after you read her article and go, “I know who you are!” We lost that in Austin [with] how big it’s grown. Having that extra piece of connectivity where we’re sort of holding that together. These are women who are actually really engaged and supporting and bonding with other women. So I think with the more things that pop up the better. Certainly, it’s no competition to us. The more women want to be connected, the bigger role that we have.
Who was on the first cover?
Amy Simmons of Amy’s Ice Creams. The cool thing is, I’m still connected to her! Two years ago she did a workshop at one of our events. 15 years ago she was on the cover of the magazine. So many of our cover women actually stay connected with us and that’s really really fun too that they feel like they’re part of our tribe now. They’re proud to be on it.
You run two businesses and you’re a mom, so what is a typical day like for you?
Oh gosh. The alarm goes off at about 6:25, I roll out of bed, get breakfast for my son. He gets on the bus at 7:15. My husband usually does the after school so I do the morning. I do breakfast, put him on the bus and then I generally do about 45 min of email, just catch up because it’s an easy thing for me to do in the morning. I used to be really good about walking every morning but since I’ve started this other business I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve got to start exercising again, so I’m committing to do that in 2018.
Then I come to the office — I’m here full-time — and I still meet with a lot of clients, and on the magazine side, I still do that high-level relationship building. With On the Dot, we’re in startup mode so we’re doing all kinds of testing, analyzing data, lots of meetings about that. I’ve been raising money for the past six months and that’s a whole other job in and of itself.
I go home in the evenings and usually a couple days of the week I record On the Dot. I’m recording about 5 weeks ahead and every week I get scripts so I record when I get home. I spend about an hour, hour and a half recording. In the evenings I try to collapse a little bit, but I usually sneak in some more emails. Then I try to get in my bed and read at 10 pm and go to sleep by 10:30. Then it starts all over!
What’s something you’ve taken away from the women you’ve met over the years?
That’s easy. What I realized, and this is about women in general, is that we’re all the same. Everybody is in the same situation. Some people like to be the queen bee, but for the most part, the biggest people we’ve had on our cover are the most down to earth. Totally laid back. We’re all the same. And the women that we have in our magazine, as a general rule, have the same core passion and mission that we have. We surround ourselves with the people that have our similar belief.
How do you define success?
Just hearing those stories and making an impact. For On the Dot, when I get an email from a high school teacher that says ‘I’m playing this for my class every day because young women need to know about these women.’ That’s success. If we can move the needle for women, and truly I think that we have in Austin, I think that we’ve made an impact.
With On the Dot, our goal is to have millions of subscribers. TheSkimm has six million subscribers, there’s no reason why we can’t. The reason why we have that goal is, what if six million women every day heard a story about a relatable role model? What if we had that messaging rather than the messaging that’s out there now? And there’s a ton of the messaging that we have it just doesn’t get exposed. How would the conversation about how the advancement of women change? How would your mindset change, so your conversation with your girlfriends, to your colleagues change? That’s the goal.
What advice do you have for those wanting to start a business?
Just do it. Surround yourself with people, things, the magazine, On the Dot, other organizations that support that message. Going back to the hardest thing, it’s in your mind. It’s your mindset. Think about your New Year’s resolution — if your best friend is doing it alongside you, encouraging you, you’re much more likely to achieve those goals. It’s the same concept. You can’t always have that cause your friends are busy and they can’t bug you every day about your goal. But you can be reminded of that by surrounding yourself with the kind of positive messaging you need every day.
Images courtesy of Austin Woman and Melinda Garvey.