Greeted with a spirited and crystal clear voice, Ashley Wong jumped right into interview mode during our conversation. Her journey from college grad to successful CEO is a remarkable one.
Ashley graduated from Y Combinator’s accelerator program in June 2015, after cutting her teeth as head of product at meal delivery startup SpoonRocket. From there, she would devote her efforts to helping people, “avoid spending money on cheap tchotchkes and getting crappy results.” Her startup, Gemnote, offers companies thoughtfully curated products for an unforgettable client or employee experience. They work closely with marketing, recruiting and design teams at companies like Capital One, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Slack to produce world-class gifting experiences.
On the precipice of the holiday gift-giving season, we asked Ashley about her support for female entrepreneurship and tackling each day with a no-excuses attitude.
“We have been successful only because we set really ambitious goals for ourselves. From customer service to the quality of our products, we’re constantly trying to do better and one-up ourselves.” Gemnote has seen stratospheric growth over the last three years — doubling its year-over-year revenue, to be precise.
One-upping is part of Ashley’s DNA. As a college grad, she recalls planning and producing wildly elaborate children’s birthday parties with large budgets — all while holding down a full-time job in marketing. These days, one-upping includes both ensuring that Gemnote excels in the value it creates for clients, but also making time for creative endeavors such as writing a children’s book in her spare time.
“You’ll look back and realize, wow, I published a children’s book or built a $100 million company — all because you set high goals for yourself and achieved them.”
Building Relationships, Not Transactions
The philosophy of Gemnote is a simple one. People want to feel appreciated for the work that they do and that appreciation goes a long way in fostering personal and business relationships. Gifts are one the best ways to express appreciation.
“More than 75 percent of companies in the U.S. have the budget allocated for some sort of gifting — that’s a lot. Eighty-three percent of people say they are more likely to do business with a brand if they were gifted something,” adds Ashley.
Ashley’s commitment to building relationships extends beyond the scope of items in a box. She is fiercely dedicated to creating value for customers that have previously passed on Gemnote’s services.
“I used to get really emotional and offended when potential customers didn’t want to use Gemnote, because it’s such an incredible service. We add so much value to their customer and employee experience. And it’s my baby, so I took it personally. But those are small battles that you lose. But you have to rise above that. What does that mean? For me, it’s conveying that our service is valuable and following up with them later to show them that this may be immediately effective for their team and company and always have the hope of closing that person later.”
Out-of-the-box Startup Advice for Female Founders
Ashley is adamant about getting up every day and tackling every challenge ahead of her. “[You need] a no-excuse kind of attitude. And you must have thick skin. Ninety percent of people out there are going to say ‘no’ to you or they may not believe in you. When you have no excuses, you can take steps to change people’s minds and become champions for you.”
She believes that this kind of attitude is key to success for any founder. But she’s especially passionate about supporting female founders. “I want to see female founders building amazing products and becoming the next unicorns. If 50 percent of public companies were female-led — that would certainly be a dream come true.”
Ashley recalls one of her biggest lessons from Y Combinator: Hire slow and fire fast.
“In my idealism, I thought I wouldn’t have to fire anyone if I hired great people. But everybody makes hiring mistakes. We often let emotions get intertwined with those decisions because we’re beings with empathy. However, if you have a bad apple [on the team], it’s a great disservice to keep them there. You have to do what’s best for the company and that may not necessarily be the best outcome for your personal relationship with them.”
Ashley admits that with female-founded companies, there is a danger of forming homogenous teams — essential clones of yourself. “Since Gemnote is a B2B company, it’s very dangerous for us to hire the same kind of people. Our customers are so diverse, from all over the world, with different use cases for the service. We don’t want to hire clones if our customers, for instance, are men in their sixties from all different walks of life. We need to have people internally that understand and empathize with our customers in order to build the best product and have the best service. Diversity in recruiting needs to be discussed way early on.”
While Gemnote has achieved triple-digit year-over-year growth, getting people to pay a bit more for gifting quality products is still a challenge when they are used to cheap promotional items.
According to a nationwide survey done by the Boston Consulting Group on employee happiness, the number one reason people stay at their jobs is that they feel appreciated. Over the next year, Ashley hopes to double her team to show the world just how effective gifting can be for increasing customer loyalty and employee happiness.
*Images by Mariah Tiffany