A conversation with Mimi O Chun, General Assembly’s first employee.
Employee #1 is a series of interviews focused on sharing the often untold stories of early employees at tech companies.
Mimi O Chun was the first employee at General Assembly, an education company operating in 15 cities with over 25,000 graduates worldwide. She is currently a founder, advisor, investor, and consultant for a number of early-stage startups.
Discussed:Switching From Consultant to Employee, Career Paths for a Designer, Being Older Than the Founders, Being the Only Woman at a Startup, Working With Four Founders, and Determining Where You Can Have the Most Influence.
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Craig : So how did you meet the General Assembly guys?
Mimi : I met Adam [Pritzker] while I was working at IDEO. He was at a bit of a crossroads—simultaneously applying to business school, thinking about starting something, and applying at IDEO.
He ended up withdrawing himself from consideration because I think he realized entrepreneurship was his calling. He comes from a family of entrepreneurs so I think he knew, even though he was looking at these other paths, the lure of entrepreneurship was too tempting for him to do anything else.
We ended up staying in touch. When you meet someone at IDEO in general, whether you're a candidate or an employee, the conversations tend to be around what inspires you and what you’re drawing your references from. Adam and I very quickly developed a rapport because he could make business references AND fine art references. We just had a common dialogue, so we ended up staying in touch, getting drinks from time to time.
When he told me more about what he and his partners were planning to do with General Assembly—which at the time was called Superconductor—I was like, "Oh, this is really fascinating. I know nothing about this. I'd be happy to help you with brand strategy and design."
Craig : As a friend or contractor?
Mimi : Kind of both. I did it for a really reduced rate. I would have helped anyway, but then the scope became big. By that point, once I was producing a lot more stuff, we had to formalize things a bit more.
I never presumed that I would leave IDEO to join General Assembly. I like to describe it as waking up in Vegas with a wedding ring on my finger by the time I finally joined full-time. I think there were a lot of life events for me that happened—I was getting a divorce and I was moving out of my apartment. I was doing a bunch of things that also made me a lot more, I think, open. I knew I needed change and I’m not a good tweaker, so I just kind of changed everything and ended up leaving IDEO to join General Assembly full-time.
Craig : Okay, just so I get this timeline right, when did you meet Adam and when did you join GA?
Mimi : So Adam came into IDEO in February of 2010. I think GA launched in January of 2011. We didn't start collaborating until the summer of 2010. I remember we would have drinks at the Standard Biergarten in the Meatpacking District. We started talking in earnest about developing the brands. I was helping on nights and weekends while I was working at IDEO and then I ended up leaving formally in October of 2010.
Craig : Okay, so it wasn't very long at all between meeting and launching.
Mimi : It all happened in stages. We were at 902 Broadway, doing the build-out on the fourth floor.
Matt [Brimer] and Brad [Hargreaves] had essentially built our inaugural class of startups who would form our membership—participating in the community and renting desks. When construction ended up getting delayed, we rented a temporary space on the seventh floor of the building in November of 2010, but we were under a press embargo. Nobody could post anything on social media about it until we did our official launch for the Times in January of 2011.
Craig : Okay, gotcha. All right, it initially started out with renting desks. Was that the very beginning?
Mimi : When the founders first started GA, it was initially structured as an LLC -- it was supposed to be everybody's side job. It was primarily coworking, but specifically designed for people working on startups.
The founders had looked at the market and at the time there were a bunch of coworking spaces popping up in Dumbo and whatnot, but in those scenarios you have an accountant sitting next to a freelance writer with absolutely nothing in common, and GA was about creating a tighter community with a lot more in common.
I don't think anybody really thought of it as coworking because the benefits of being in a space like that were really about knowledge-sharing. It wasn't really a real estate play, I'll put it that way. We were breaking even on the desks at the time. It was about creating something bigger and a more sort of osmotic transfer of knowledge between teams, but also to have teams that are in various stages of their growth, all in a shared space.
In the beginning, everyone who joined the community would be asked to contribute back to the community in some way—whether it was writing a blog post or teaching a short class or doing a quick fireside chat. It was really about trying to instill those values from the get-go.
The formalized education happened later, not that much later, but later. If you look at the actual footprint of that first space in 902 Broadway, I think it was 16,000 square feet. And of that 16,000 square feet, we designed one classroom that was relatively small. It was a small fraction of the total space.
This is the thing with creating non-tech startups. If you have an actual physical space, you can really only iterate with your next campus. That first campus, yeah, you can see how it evolved from there. And now I would say that with most of the other locations, 90% of the footprint is dedicated to educational space.
Craig : Okay. What's Adam's relationship with the other guys? Who grabbed who?
Mimi : Adam initially met Matt and Brad at New York Tech Meetup, I believe. And Matt brought Jake [Schwartz] in.
Craig : And so how did it go the first time you met all of them?
Mimi : That was probably when we started the brand development process. I worked most closely with Adam but I spent a lot of time with all of them (Adam, Brad, Matt, and Jake) in the beginning because I was trying to synthesize many different perspectives on what this thing could be.
We all came to the project with a certain bias or a certain passion or a certain conviction, and that was very evident from the beginning. And so one of the first things I did with the team, with the founders, was articulate the brand values and craft the value proposition. We weren't exactly sure how to talk about General Assembly, so I ran them through an exercise. This was me putting my consultant hat on, running an exercise to get at what was the one- or two-sentence way to describe General Assembly. So that was the first thing.
We basically repeated those exercises to name it and design the identity—the visual, verbal, and spatial identity. All of that was culled from numerous conversations that I had with all of the founders.
Craig : What hooked you in the beginning about GA?
Mimi : I think I had thought about it specifically through the lens of a designer because I'd been on the board of AIGA, I’d been a lecturer and critic at schools, and so I'm always thinking about career paths that are available to young designers.
At the time I think I thought of the design profession as having two paths: client services or in-house. I guess working for a startup is in-house, but as we both know, it's a totally different beast to be involved from a foundational level as a designer. There's a lot of authorship and a lot of opportunity that young designers have by pursuing a path of entrepreneurship. So that was probably my primary motivation.
Craig : Just to pause you, you liked the idea of helping other people follow this path? Or you're doing it for yourself or both?
Mimi : I think it was both. I was also curious about this New York tech community that I had no idea existed.
This is the curse of the consultant, having been one for pretty much the majority of my career prior to GA. You work on projects in really weird industries that you would never before consider. It's like light embedding. And when you lightly embed into that industry, you can learn a shit ton about them. And so for me, it seemed like a natural way, by helping GA’s founders with brand strategy, I could simultaneously learn about the tech industry. It’s a natural way to do research. Just do a project and it'll be interesting and productive at the same time.
Craig : When does it become like, "Oh, maybe I want to do this for real?" Was that at a particular meeting or anything like that?
Mimi : I left IDEO not because I was necessarily thinking that GA was going to become what it eventually became, but more because, in the early days of GA, with all of those inaugural startups there, I was like, "Oh, I can consult for the inaugural startups that are in GA.” I think our realization that there was a need to really build out GA as an educational company happened later.
Craig : So you were thinking, "Okay, this is a very cool project that I can leave IDEO for and essentially run as my full-time job. And in this project, I can potentially garner even more projects as a startup consultant."
Mimi : It's like Inception.
Craig : [Laughter]
Mimi : It's the first time I've actually talked about it. It's funny, because yeah, there is a realization attached to it that I wasn't super risky and prophetic in seeing what GA would become. It very much happened in an incremental way. I was not about to take a lot of financial risks at the time.
Craig : So back to when you were working as a consultant. How did the name come about?
Mimi : At the time, the working title was Superconductor and one of my caveats to working with Adam was, "I will totally help you with brand strategy and design if you let me change the name." And Adam was like, "Okay, I think I can do that.” But he said it without realizing necessarily how attached a couple of the other founders were to the name. They had already been talking about it within the tech community and people liked it.
The reason why I was adverse to the name Superconductor was because it sounded almost like an accelerator program. It sounded more like it was about us rather than about our community. I knew that it had to be about our community in order for people to feel welcomed and to feel like it was their home and to take ownership of the community themselves. So General Assembly came out of three inspirations. One was the idea of factories and places where things get made. The second was around schools, like when you have your school-wide assembly. And then the third came from self-governing bodies. Could you create a community where those three ideas were prevalent? So that's where the name came from.
Craig : Did the risk of startups kind of lure you in at all when you were at IDEO? What was interesting about the startups?
Mimi : I think I can say this about IDEO designers in general, but there's a certain type of person who goes to work there. They’re designers whose greatest priority is impact. I always believe you can create impact at scale with market leaders at a place like IDEO or you can create impact at the other end of the spectrum as a startup. The middle is less interesting. It's a little bit more incremental. They're thinking a little bit more near-term.
In other words, you can have massive impact if you're innovating at Walmart or you can have massive impact if you're creating a startup, right? Those two ends of the spectrum have always been far more interesting to me than the middle.
And New York startups—in the beginning and probably still to this day—are different from the Valley’s in that there are a lot more non-technical founders in New York. A lot of people who come out of media and marketing, a lot of people who saw a problem and wanted to solve it versus a tech-first approach of "How can I turn this innovation into a viable business?"
You have these legacy industries in New York, whether it's publishing, fashion, art. And we started seeing these startups pop up, like Artsy or Of a Kind, trying to disrupt these sort of New York legacy industries. And I think that's what was interesting to me.
Craig : Let's talk about what it was like working there as the first employee. How did the interpersonal dynamics work out between you, the founders, and the rest of the team?
Mimi : For a really long time, it was the four founders plus myself. I had a non-trivial piece of equity, so technically I guess that made me a partner, which meant that I would join the founders for some of the early planning meetings once we were actually in the space.
Dynamic-wise, I worked primarily with Adam on stuff. I don't know if I actually reported to Adam or if I reported to Jake. No, I must have reported to Adam technically, though it never felt that way. I think not having a founder title was actually really good for me.
Craig : That's what I was wondering.
Mimi : I didn't need the accountability, but in many ways, I had the most tangible skill set. I think having four founders is actually pretty rare for a startup because there can be too much overlap. Each of GA’s four founders are so distinctly different in terms of both their personalities, their passions, and what they're all individually good at, that it's pretty evident to me where their energies naturally went, but I don't think it was always that way in the beginning.
Craig : Do you think that not being a founder made your work more satisfying?
Mimi : I definitely looked at it as a really positive experience. My perspective is I've always been more comfortable behind the scenes than out in front. It's not that I would be unwilling to take on that role, and I certainly subsequently have, but I think, for my first introduction to a startup, it's definitely good to be first employee.
Craig : So how did that play out when you started hiring more and more people?
Mimi : When you're at a high-growth company and somebody's been there for a long time, you can go to that person for a lot of institutional knowledge that your colleague who was hired three months before you were doesn't have. I felt a certain responsibility being an early employee to welcome new hires. And I was also the only woman.
Craig : Yeah, I was holding out for that question.
Mimi : I was also the oldest by a good margin. I think Jake is around seven years younger than me and he was the oldest of the founders. So there was definitely a little bit of a mom, den mom sort of thing. Tiger mom? I don't know.
Craig : [Laughter] Yeah, that’s a tricky role. I’m interested in how you viewed both that dynamic and the dynamic of the company at the time. Were there any moments when you were like "I don't know about this?"
Mimi : Yeah, there were. A lot of designers want to have palpable impact. As a consultant, you do a lot of these vision decks that get thrown in a file cabinet somewhere. One of the first things that happened was when we had built out the space, we had a press embargo, we knew the New York Times story was gonna come out January 26th or whatever it was, and so everybody was walking around on eggshells. Everybody was super stressed about this launch. The space was pretty much finished but there was a lot of glass in that inaugural campus and people kept running into the glass, like literally running into the glass.
One of the startups [renting space at GA] had a friend come over and he literally smacked his head on a glass wall. It happened a number of times. I would hear people talking about how other people were running into glass and then two seconds later they themselves would run into glass. So I eventually got this frosted adhesive to put on the glass but for a good day or two, I was freaking out, putting Post-Its on every single glass surface. I remember having this oh shit moment of “I wanted to have palpable impact on users and this is what it means to be accountable for it.”
Craig : [Laughter] Was there anything that surprised you about the experience of being a first employee?
Mimi : As a first employee, for better or worse, the thing about joining a startup is that it's not a meritocracy, right? If you're disappointed in a decision that's made, or if you feel the founders aren’t leading the way that you would lead an organization, it can be incredibly frustrating. It’s actually tricky to be a first employee because you identify both with the founders and the employees.
Craig : And so I wonder how you start to reconcile that, assuming you get a fair equity deal, how you feel about ownership, how you feel about managing people.
Mimi : I think you do feel some ownership. I think you do feel some accountability, but I guess, for me, being pretty functional in my role and pretty discreet around what was my domain probably helped with that.
I stopped being operationally involved a good number of years ago, so when I go back and step into a GA location now, I've actually been really pleasantly surprised and at times proud of how well the brand has managed to weather.
Craig : Yeah. Do you think that makes you feel better about the experience as a whole because you have a tangible legacy?
Mimi : As a designer, it would be so easy for me to go into straight-up marketing. One of the reasons why I've never chosen that path is because I'm not interested in putting lipstick on a pig. I'm not interested in creating spin for a sub-optimal product experience.
For me, product, environment, experience, and the communications and design around it are all so interwoven that I could create the most beautiful brand in the world, but if it's a sub-optimal experience for people, it doesn't mean anything. It just means we're really good at fronting.
Craig : So kind of closing things off, since leaving GA, how do you think about it?
Mimi : I think in some ways I'm more comfortable in the role of a first employee than I am as a founder. But I’m not personally interested in joining a startup late. I guess it depends on what you're motivated by or what you're looking for in your job. I have always known that I identify with early stage startups.
New was always much more interesting to me. For me, I'm most interested in taking a nebulous idea, taking a very fuzzy hypothesis and turning it into something concrete, whether that's for P&G or whether that's for this as-of-yet unnamed startup. I like figuring it out.
I think that the tech community in general is so overspecialized for mid-stage or mature companies. I remember meeting a designer from Apple whose job it was to design icons, day in and day out. And I was like, "Wow, okay." He was this lauded designer and obviously very skilled at it, but I think I was spoiled in my career in that I felt like I had license to weigh in on anything from product to marketing to brand. I can have opinions about all of those things and try and prototype ideas around all of that stuff. And that's one of the benefits of being an early-stage employee that you wouldn't get if you joined as the 800th, right?
Craig : Yeah, definitely. That autonomy is huge. All right, so do you have any general advice for someone who's a first employee?
Mimi : I think if there's anything, it's having a good amount of self-awareness and a fair amount of clarity. Ask your founders where the buck stops in decision-making. Find out what you own and ask yourself, "Am I comfortable with this? Am I comfortable with this part of the pie?" Just getting clarity around that, I think, will be helpful. It sets the stage.