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Zulily and Maveron: Building a successful company

Guest post by Emilia Griswold, Foster MBA 2014

Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily

Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily

Foster students were recently treated to a discussion of “What Makes a Successful Company” with Darrell Cavens, CEO of Zulily.com, and Dan Levitan, co-founder of venture capital firm Maveron. Maveron led the initial funding for Zulily, and this was a rare opportunity to see a founder and investor speak candidly about their partnership. Cavens and Levitan, along with moderator Emer Dooley of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship discussed start-ups, venture capital, and building high-performing teams.

The recent $1 billion valuation of Zulily prompted several questions about how a billion dollar company gets started. The answer, from both Cavens and Levitan, was hard work. Zulily was started by Cavens and former Blue Nile CEO Mark Vadon with little more than a spreadsheet and whiteboard. Although they didn’t have much of a business plan, Maveron believed in the team. The people, Levitan pointed out, are what a company is all about. With the Zulily team, Maveron saw leaders with the ability and vision to bring others along for the ride and a staunch dedication to constant improvement. Cavens and Levitan agreed that Zulily never thought of itself as a billion dollar company, but as a company focused on doing and growing. And fast.

By creating a culture with an “iterate and grow” mindset, they could run on Zulily Time: twice as fast as anyone would think is doable. To illustrate Zulily Time, Cavens told the story of getting the first fulfillment center up and running in 10 weeks—instead of the 7-12 months that was originally estimated. That lesson of maintaining focus and going after what everyone thinks is impossible certainly resonates with many students. And Levitan had more advice for those just starting out and lacking Cavens’ pedigree: be comfortable thinking on your feet, surround yourself with entrepreneurial people, and take time in school to figure out who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what you excel at.

Dan Levitan

Dan Levitan, Co-founder of Maveron

Cavens emphasized that part of developing yourself is developing a team that compliments your skills. When he was building the initial Zulily team, he looked for people that would not only add value, but also take risks and thrive in ambiguous situations. Cavens advised taking time to find investors with whom you really click, because they are also part of the team. Funders can add networks and resources as well as validation of your idea. Because Maveron knew Cavens and his capabilities, they were even willing to let Zulily write their own term sheet tied to a specific set of milestones. And unlike many start-ups, Cavens knew that if this idea didn’t work out he wasn’t going to pivot, he would just give the investment back and go do something else.

Ultimately, Levitan noted, it’s great entrepreneurs and their teams that build an amazing company—not venture capital firms. But no one, Zulily in particular, can deny the importance of money and resources to get a company off the ground. Zulily is proof that incredible things can happen when driven founders and the right investors come together.

This event was organized by Foster’s Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital Club.