Victoria Montgomery-Brown, DIGITAL GODDESS

Victoria Montgomery-Brown, DIGITAL GODDESS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Victoria. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Victoria Montgomery Brown: Thanks, Zibby. This is a great pleasure.

Zibby: This is so nice. I think you are my third classmate from HBS to be on my podcast. I had Lea Carpenter and Charles Duhigg and now you. Look at this. It’s great.

Victoria: Charles interviewed me maybe three weeks ago on Big Think, actually, for the book. I was like, who could be a great interviewer? Charles.

Zibby: He was awesome. That’s great. You all are just so accomplished. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk to you. Now you’ve written this great book, Digital Goddess: The Unfiltered Lessons of a Female Entrepreneur, which is amazing. You were just telling me I’m seeing this before you even saw it. I’m seeing this before you. This is the copy of your book, at least the advance copy, which looks great. Congratulations. Victoria, you’ve already founded this amazing company, Big Think. Why also write a book? What made you want to sit down and share all your lessons with the rest of us? By the way, thank you. I appreciate it.

Victoria: You’re welcome. I think it was because, essentially, over the years, probably mostly in the last five years, I’ve received lots of emails from young women who are aspiring entrepreneurs. Obviously, it takes a while to build a successful business. Big Think is doing well now. We reach about forty million people a month. I think because of that, women started to reach out to me and ask, I have an interest in being an entrepreneur too, how did you do it? My business partner, actually, Peter Hopkins, was the one who really encouraged me to do it. He’s like, “You have a unique perspective. There are female entrepreneurs, but not a ton of them. A lot of them don’t become the CEO. I think it would be good for you to write a book and explain how you did it or how we did it, especially for young women,” but it’s really for entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs at any stage or age.

Zibby: As you were talking, by the way, I realized I also had Jeff Norton on my podcast who was also in our class. Anyway, okay, enough. Thank you for women CEOs and entrepreneurs. Could you share the story that you wrote about in the book, which was hilarious, I mean, scary in its own right as well, but when you were called into the police department and had to share with your investors all the craziness of what happened after your prior job incident?

Victoria: Yes. I say in the book that I was arrested, but I actually was talking to my criminal defense attorney who is my friend now from years ago. He corrected me and said I was not actually arrested because there’s no record of it. All of it was expunged. In the moment, I was arrested, but not legally. In any case, it was November or December of 2007, so literally a few weeks before Big Think was about to launch. A big story was coming out in The New York Times I think on January 7th with Larry Summers who was the former president of Harvard and former treasury secretary talking about why he had decided to be an initial investor in Big Think. This was a huge deal. It was maybe the second page of The New York Times Business section. I was walking out of Union Square subway station. It was the era of flip phones, unbelievably. I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. Typically, I don’t answer phone calls from numbers I don’t recognize, but something told me to answer this call. I did.

I picked up the phone. There was a guy’s voice with a strong New York accent and sounded kind of laughing, like a laughing tone. He introduced himself as a senior detective from the NYPD and told me that I needed to come into a specific precinct. Me being naïve or something, I had never had any dealings the police or anything like that, and so I just put on my good girl hat and was like, oh, my gosh, I’ve got to get into a car. I went directly to the police station. I called my dad on the way. He said, “What are you doing? You don’t even know why you’re going. Get out of the car.” But I kept going. I arrived at the precinct. There was a man there dressed in civilian clothes, I guess you’d call them, waiting for me. He was just totally laughing, but it was a big deal. I was arrested; again, whatever, expunged later. I sat in a room with a one-way mirror for maybe three hours. I think it was just intimidation tactics of some kind. Somebody that I had previously worked for was not pleased that I had left and called into a flurry of activity, basically, the New York justice system. It was terrifying.

As I say in the book, I could have basically just hidden this from our investors or denied it, pretend that it didn’t happen. As soon as I came out, my business partner and I started calling our investors. I called the majority of them — Peter actually called Larry because he knew him better at that stage than I did — and just fessed up to what happened. One of our classmates is actually the lead investor in Big Think, David Frankel. He was the first person I called. I had no idea what to expect from any of these people. Would they be mad? Would they disavow me? Would they want to divest? They had no idea what the outcome was going to be, nor did I. Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised. They all supported me. It taught me a lesson that has been fundamental for the entire duration of Big Think and being an entrepreneur. Get out in front of the bad news as quickly as you can. Be as honest and as blunt as possible. People will support you. I mention in the book at some stage, the story of Elizabeth Holmes. Once you start digging into yourself a hole, it’s really difficult to get out. You actually have to dig deeper. I learned immediately that you have to be honest. As much as it’s painful, that’s the thing to do.

Zibby: It’s so true. Even with my kids, it’s like, “I’m not even that upset that you stole the cookie. I’m more upset that you lied about stealing the cookie.” It’s the same thing. Somehow, the lies themselves make whatever it was almost pale in comparison to the fact that you then can’t trust the person. Once you don’t have trust in your relationship, what else is left? Usually, you don’t have to learn it in such a dramatic Law & Order-type way, but I’m glad that you lived this for the rest of us. That’s crazy. Just for the people who aren’t familiar with Big Think, do you want to explain what it is and why you founded it to begin with and what people can get out of it?

Victoria: Big Think is a global knowledge forum with leading thinkers and influencers. We say to be on Big Think you have to be at the top of your field or disrupting it, everybody from Nobel laureates to business leaders, politics, artists, academics. We’ve had everybody on from the likes of Elon Musk to Richard Branson, Larry Summer. It’s global. It’s international. We reach around forty million people a month. The large majority of it is free. It’s short-form video and also articles. Then we also have a subscription side of it which is much more focused on professional and personal growth and development. We’ve been around since 2008. It’s growing. It’s something I’m very proud of. When we started it, the dearth of thoughtful content on the internet — we pitched it to our investors as Davos, democratized. For people who don’t know, Davos is thing which is probably not happening this year, but that happens next year in January in Switzerland where notable business leaders and world leaders, and Bono, get together. I think he’s always there. I don’t know. I’ve never been. They get together in the Alps. They talk about global issues.

All of these incredible people get exposed to other incredible, notable people, but the likes of me and other people don’t get to go and participate. We thought, why don’t we create a scenario where regular people have access to the minds of incredible thought leaders? We created Big Think. We pitched it to initial investors as Davos, democratized. It’s grown from there. The fundamental principle of it hasn’t changed. We really do want to expose incredible people to our audience and in ways that is not of the moment. It’s not about what’s happening politically today, yesterday, tomorrow. It’s really, what can this person, whether they be a politician or a business leader or an artist, teach you or I that we can put it into our own work or lives and make ourselves and our lives better and those around us? We say that it has to stand the test of time. Now, are there moments when we do do something that’s of the moment? Yes, but ninety to ninety-five percent of the content we create is evergreen.

Zibby: Excellent. Do you go on it and tune up on certain topics yourself?

Victoria: I absolutely do. For instance, we had recently, I suppose it was one of our last in-studio interviews before COVID, with Robin DiAngelo who wrote White Fragility, the book, she gave a masterclass for Big Think on confronting racism. That, to me, was really profound and interesting. Yes, I do go on and learn about topics that I didn’t know about all the time. At the moment, it’s interesting for us because we’re doing a lot of this type of interviewing where before, we’d had people come into our studio. What’s been interesting, and I don’t know if you’ve found this, it’s been much easier for us to have access to guests. I interviewed Penn Jillette, the magician, about six weeks ago. Typically, it would take maybe six months to book him. He lives in Las Vegas. Getting a plane to come to New York or us going to Las Vegas, big barriers to entry. Now doing things like this, it’s been so much easier. Next week, we’re interviewing Malcom Gladwell. We’ve done him. We’ve interviewed him maybe three times before. Again, it’s typically a six-month or so booking process. This was a week or two. This has changed things, not that you asked, but it has.

Zibby: Well, now I’m just going to call Malcom Gladwell next. It sounds like he has plenty of spare time. I have noticed that, actually. My access to authors, of course, has expanded because it doesn’t matter where they are. I used to really insist that people, not insist, but I used to request that people come over. That was so nice. I really got to know people really well one on one. We would sit right here. Now this is so much more efficient. I can fit in more interviews. There are pros and cons to everything. I would still, if I had my druthers, sit here next to you instead of on the computer. It’s lovely this way too. You had so many great tips in your book. I’ll just pick out a few that I thought were pretty great. Here’s one. This is from HBS. I’m not even sure I learned this. You said, “Here’s something major that HBS taught me. You don’t need to know how to do things. You need to know how to ask people to do things for you. This is something at which I excel.”

Victoria: It’s true. I was thinking back to this a few weeks ago. I was in a study group, actually, with our classmate and friend Lea Carpenter. I helped organize the study group with Lea. There were probably eight of us in the study group. I was the only one who was not a Baker Scholar. Maybe Lea wasn’t. I’m not sure. Everybody else was. I managed to assemble this incredible group where I probably contributed, academically, the least, but I managed to learn from incredibly bright people around me. I think that is something to not be ashamed of. People have different skills. When we were putting together the business model and the plan for Big Think and Excel spreadsheets, I suck at Excel, I was like, why do I have to do this? I can find somebody who knows how to do it. It’s going to be a whole lot better than anything I put together. That’s the approach I’ve taken. It’s definitely been humbling over the years to realize how little I do know. Then it’s also freeing to understand that there are people out there who can help you and not to be ashamed to ask. HBS really did teach me that because I did feel oftentimes, I think there is an expression, the diversity admit. I came from an artsy background. I was seated next to a banker, first year, from Goldman Sachs and a Navy Seal. It’s like, how do I belong in this situation? That did teach me that I did bring something to the table different than these people. It’s not shameful to ask for help.

Zibby: We were there just to make their experience better. I actually have a really hard time delegating anything. That’s probably one of my weaknesses. I just feel like by the time I find the right person to do something, I could’ve done it fifty times over myself. It’s my own issue.

Victoria: I do feel that sometimes myself. I feel if it takes me longer to ask somebody for help or do something, I’ll just do it. Over the years, I’ve realized so many people I work with can do things far better than I. I have a company that focuses on video production. Do I know how to set up the camera? No, I do not. Do I do any of the editing? No. CEOs of most companies, they should understand the process of what they’re building or the product, but they don’t need to have to build it themselves.

Zibby: That’s true. You can’t do everything. You had another great idea here where somebody took a thousand sticky notes with tasks that had to be accomplished, put them all over, and then each day just pulled down one to take off the to-do list, so to speak. I was putting that on my sticky notes. Tell me about that and if you’ve actually tried it yourself.

Victoria: I have tried it myself. I should be doing it more these days, actually. I think it can be really overwhelming when you think to yourself, I have to build a business or I have to build this product or something. The finality of it is really overwhelming. Versus, if I just call this person today or do one little thing, it feels like you’re moving forward. The building of momentum is fundamental to achieving whatever it is you want to achieve. It’s so easy to just say, I want to run a marathon or something. If I just go out and walk a hundred feet today and then tomorrow I run five hundred feet or something, you’re building the momentum for it. Taking those sticky notes off the wall really does feel like you’re like accomplishing something and I think pushes you forward versus, just as I said, the finality of the overwhelmingness of the large project or whatever it is you’re trying to do, seems insurmountable versus one little thing at a time.

Zibby: Although, I feel like I would take one down and then think of five other things that I had to do. We’d have to start another wall. I feel like you’d have the first wall, and then you’d have to tackle the second wall or something while things just keep building up. I love that visual element of it. I feel like crossing it off the to-do list is sometimes not as rewarding as if you were to pull it down.

Victoria: There’s actually a book that a friend of mine, Kate Millican, suggested for me which I bought a couple of weeks ago which is called Best Self. Do you know that?

Zibby: No.

Victoria: This is something which I think is really amazing. It’s a thirteen-week plan for a goal or three goals that you want to achieve. It’s very, very direct. I started it yesterday. It’s called Best Self. It’s a very good book.

Zibby: You started the book, or you started the thirteen weeks to achieving something?

Victoria: It’s a book that is thirteen weeks to achieving something. It’s not like you read this book. It’s activities every day to get to a goal.

Zibby: Oh, I see. What are you trying to achieve?

Victoria: I’m trying to achieve, basically, how to be in my — I’m a very anxious person. I’ve been through a lot to cause anxiety and stress. For me, it’s living in the moment and appreciating the daily things in life versus constantly striving. My achievement is actually being about less achievement at the moment and just being in the moment and calm.

Zibby: This is what it’s like going to Harvard Business School. Our goals are to achieve less than we’re capable of. We’re just that amazing that we have to slow ourselves down. It’s just too much, oh, my gosh. You kind of slipped in there that you had been through a lot to create anxiety. What are some of the things? Is there anything you were thinking of in particular? Was there some sort of experience in general that you feel like has caused a lot of anxiety in your life? Or was that just a lot meaning the business and all the rest of it?

Victoria: Overwhelmingly, for the past thirteen years it’s been the business. I do want to say that it’s given me a profound amount of joy and happiness too. I think my tendency is to revert to an anxious state of being and a stressed state of being, hoping for the best but planning for the worst. My go-to is always, this positive thing that happened, and then I think of ten negative things that could derail it. That’s a real challenge for me. Over the years, I’ve gone into many downward spirals when positive things are happening around me. All I see is doom. It was maybe 2013 or ’14 that I was in San Francisco with Peter, my business partner. We were seated at Yerba Buena, this coffee place. I started talking about all the problem things that were potentially going to happen to the business and what the investors were going to say and our clients and our employees. He sat there with no joking at all and said, “If this is all going to happen, why are we doing this? Why don’t we just quit? What’s the point?” Then he pulled himself together and said, “You know Victoria, it’s been really difficult to be around you for the past six months. It’s all negative all the time. I know that your role as CEO is to see the negative things in potential, but you’re also supposed to see the positive and be encouraging people and being a cheerleader versus planning for the doom scenario. You really need to go and get help. I’m not going to just sit back and observe this any longer.”

At that stage, I had been seeing, casually, a therapist to just talk about the daily ins and outs. I found that in therapy I tended to be a comedian and my job was to essentially make the therapist laugh. I would emerge from these sessions being like, what was the use of that, really? I wasn’t very honest. I was about comedy. Anyway, I ended up going to see a psychiatrist. I was placed on or put myself — I don’t know. He placed me on antidepressants and antianxiety medication, one in the same. I think it’s Wellbutrin. That really helped me and kind of broke the cycle of the downward doom scenarios. Now, has it made me be the life of the party and the joy and light and airy all the time? No, but it certainly did break a cycle of doom. I would encourage anybody to do that. That was kind of the end of the road for Peter that really helped me. I suppose it’s like addiction. Somebody has to do an intervention sometimes for you to take the steps.

Zibby: That’s great. How great that he did that and that you were open and receptive to that feedback as opposed to storming away from the table, which I could maybe see myself doing in a similar situation, like, what do you mean?

Victoria: It wasn’t easy. I could also know in myself that I wasn’t happy. That feeling, it was inward panic that was twenty-four hours or whenever I was awake and the feeling of something bad is about to happen in your stomach that just wouldn’t leave. It was really unpleasant for me in my own body as well.

Zibby: I’m really sorry. That’s no fun at all. I’m glad you found a way to manage it. Yes, I think therapy is the greatest thing. I wish I had been a therapist myself. Instead, I get to hear about other people’s therapy journeys and not have to do all the work, so I get some perks. What was it like for you going back and reflecting on all your time and then sitting down to write this book? What did that feel like? How long did it take for you to write the book? What was that process like?

Victoria: It was actually much quicker than I thought because obviously — well, not obviously. I’ve never written a novel. I think that requires way, way, way more effort. What I was writing was what I’d experienced and what I know. The most difficult part for me was figuring out the structure of it. As I began writing, I was like, is this even interesting? It’s my story. I was in some ways thinking, who is going to care about this? The most challenging part for me was the structure of it, kind of like in high school or college or whatever, writing an essay, getting down the parts that you want to talk about and then figuring out the order that you’re going to tell them in and then the parts that you need to cut. I put together a proposal in June of 2019, oh, my gosh, and didn’t think anything about it. I submitted to around ten agents, cold. I finally got one. As they say, and it is true — I’ll encourage anybody who wants to write a book. It just takes one. Nine of ten publishers rejected it. The tenth selected it. It took me three months to write the whole thing.

Zibby: That’s fast.

Victoria: Because of the election coming up, it was either going to be pre-election released or post-election released. I didn’t know this before writing a book, but the editorial and publishing process is very long. The whole thing was finished by December of last year. Then obviously, there have been tweaks and things to it and then choosing the book cover and things like that. The bulk of the work and all the writing was done by December because they needed it done by that. It was a very, very quick writing process. I will say that I think had I been given a year or something, I might not have done it. It’s kind of like cramming for a test or something. The fact that I had to do it in such a short timeframe meant that I actually did it.

Zibby: It’s like that saying, if you give a busy person something to do, they’ll do it fast. If I have a thousand things to do, then throw it in. I’ll make that call. I’ll send that email. On a lazy Sunday, if I’m not doing anything, I can’t even send one email sometimes.

Victoria: I remember graduating from HBS in 2003. As I wrote in the book, I didn’t have a job until November or something of that year. I was staying at my sister’s house in New York, or apartment. I remember in the morning, getting out of bed and having been at HBS being busy all the time, I found it a struggle to even plan to go to the gym. It seemed like a huge effort and ridiculous.

Zibby: Yes, I felt the same way. I still sometimes feel like that. Going to the gym is hard. I see what you’re saying. So what’s coming next for you? You have this book coming out which is so exciting. You’re running your business. What else? What else is coming up?

Victoria: In this book, Best Self, there’s this thirteen-week bucket list which I’m trying to put my mind to about things I want to do. I really do want to expand into other areas personally as well. I’d love to learn Spanish, which I have never done. I grew up in Canada and studied French for twelve years. I’m in no way fluent in French, which tells you about learning languages in schools. I have to go and immerse myself somewhere. At some point in the next year when the whole COVID thing hopefully ends, I’d like to go to Spain and learn Spanish and also just be much more open to things other than work. That doesn’t mean that work isn’t going to be front and center, but it will be alongside other things. That’s really it.

Zibby: This is great. I feel like I caught you at this major self-improvement moment in your life. You’re trying to do all these different things. It’s amazing. It’s so great. You mentioned already, it only takes one as advice to aspiring authors. What other advice would you share?

Victoria: Just keep going. The hardest part, even for me, is getting the first few words down. Then once you start writing, it’s easier. The blank page, I know much better writers than I even struggle with that. It’s just literally starting. That’s even what I said with a business. It’s just taking the leap and saying you’re going to do it. That’s something else I write about in the book. If you tell people that you’re going to do it, it’s really hard to not do it. If I said to you, I’m about to start writing my second book, and in two months you called me and asked how it was going, I’d be slightly abashed if I hadn’t even started it. I’m not writing a second book at the moment.

Zibby: I do that too. I’m like, I’m going on this eating plan. I’m telling everybody I know about it. Then maybe it will work or something. The more you can get it out loud, the more there’s a shot at it. It’s good to apply to this. I feel like so many of your tips apply not just to the workplace, but to every aspect of life. It’s really user-friendly. I feel like women are entrepreneurs even who don’t work in the workplace. Just running our lives and for people who have lots of kids, everything can be like a business. All the tips are super relevant in any context, so thank you. Thanks for the book. Thanks for chatting today.

Victoria: Thanks so much, Zibby. This has been wonderful.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Victoria: Bye.

Zibby: Bye, Victoria.

Victoria Montgomery-Brown, DIGITAL GODDESS

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