When Jess Lee was a product manager at Google in 2008, she would often unwind in the evening by playing around on Polyvore, a fashion web site that allows users to create shareable collages of clothing and interior designs. Her mentor at the time was a Google VP named Marissa Mayer. Lee couldn’t have known that seven years later, she would be CEO of Polyvore and would sell the company to Yahoo, now led by her old Google colleague.
In this excerpt from Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career—a book Fortune published in 2013 that tells the origin stories of selected alums of the 40 Under 40—we recount how Lee, No. 32 on our 2012 40 Under 40, got her start in business and ended up at Polyvore.
When Jess Lee was growing up in Hong Kong, she assumed she would end up going to art school, since she loved reading and drawing comics. “But Asian parents don’t really like that,” she tells Fortune, only half-jokingly. “They told me they wouldn’t pay for art school, so I picked a more traditional path.”
She headed to Stanford to study engineering. When she marked down computer science as her planned major when she applied, she knew next to nothing about the subject. But it turned out to be love at first sight. By her senior year, Lee had a job offer to be an engineer at Intuit, “working on QuickBooks or TurboTax or something,” as she recalls. At the eleventh hour, a recruiter from Google called. It was 2004, and the company was super-hot, but much smaller than it is today, and still known primarily as a search engine. The recruiter told Lee about Google’s associate product manager (APM) program. She responded by asking, “What’s a product manager?”
Lee got the answers to that and to many more of her questions at her job interview with Google, and through the interview process she met Bret Taylor, who went on to become CTO of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer, who later became CEO of Yahoo. Both would prove to be key mentors to Lee throughout her career.
Mayer became a sounding board for Lee even before the Stanford grad began at Google. The new college grad was nervous, she says. Her mindset went like this: “I have to be on a team; I’m pretty antisocial. I don’t know if I can do that. And I have to design product instead of just doing engineering and coding.” She shared her fears with Mayer, a Google VP and fellow Stanford grad, who gave her advice that Lee has never forgotten. Mayer said that when she had had to decide between two things, the best choices in her life had been when she chose the more challenging path. Lee went for it.
Lee first worked on Froogle, which was Google’s shopping engine. After a short time, she moved to Google Maps, where she was one of only two product managers (the other handled local search) and felt true ownership over a product. Then she began working on a project called My Maps, which gave users drawing tools and location pins so that they could create their own maps. Soon, at only 23, Lee was running My Maps with five other engineers. This intimate group was passionate and eager to come in to work each day, which Lee says was the key to the project going so smoothly. “It was like a startup within the Maps team,” she recalls happily. “We were testing new things all the time. Everyone was so excited about the potential of the project, and because of that, everyone was so much more productive.”
By 2008, Lee was spending a lot of her free time in the evenings using Polyvore, which had been around for a few months but was not yet widely popular. It was a mix of everything she loved—art, technology, and fashion. Pasha Sadri had come up with the idea in 2006 when he and his wife were remodeling their house. He co-founded the company with Jianing Hu and Guangwei Yuan, software engineers he knew from when he worked at Yahoo.
That same year, Bret Taylor, who had left Google to focus on his startup FriendFeed, approached Lee about coming to work with him. Lee met Taylor and his co-founder, Jim Norris, for coffee. But FriendFeed seemed to her like something Facebook could copy all too easily. (And in fact, Facebook later acquired FriendFeed, primarily to bring in Taylor, who would become its CTO.) Lee was hesitant to join FriendFeed, but the meeting got her excited about startup life.
When she walked out of the coffee meeting with Taylor and Norris, Lee happened to look across the street and noticed a small corner store called Pasha’s Market. A funny coincidence, she thought: it got her thinking about Pasha Sadri, whom she had never met but whom she knew as a friend of a friend (and Polyvore shared an office with FriendFeed). When she got home from work that day, she sent Sadri an e-mail with unsolicited, extensive feedback about his site. The e-mail, which Lee shared with Fortune, is pretty blunt. She politely introduced herself (“Nice to meet you!” she began, adding a smiley-face) before getting down to brass tacks by instructing Sadri, “loading images in search results is slow,” “I want image rotation,” “could you add a lightweight way of bookmarking items for future use,” and “ ‘Fgnd’ and ‘Bgnd’ are confusing … ‘Send to Front’ or ‘Send to Back’ would be more user-friendly.”
Sadri wrote back and invited Lee to meet him for coffee. They clicked, and by the end of their chat he was asking her to come work with them.
Lee joined Polyvore as a product manager. Her thinking was that, like Google, it would be a sink-or-swim environment and she would learn a lot so that eventually, she could go do her own thing. But soon, she says, “Polyvore kind of became my own thing.”
The site made all the fixes she had suggested in her e-mail and then, under her guidance, cleaned up other areas as well. Lee loved the simplicity of Polyvore and wanted to keep it strictly focused on its strength: the “sets” editor and the strong community that used it.
In 2010, Sadri, Yuan, and Hu approached Lee and told her they wanted to start recognizing her as an official co-founder of the company. Lee was wary. She wasn’t a founder, she reasoned, because she hadn’t been there from day one. The trio told her that she had joined in the company’s first year, she was its first hire after the three founders, and she had begun focusing it right away. As far as they were concerned, she was having as big an impact as they had by creating it.
Lee acquiesced, though she is aware that some might question the title. “I always feel a little bit weird about it, so when anyone asks, I try to explain that I’m like an honorary co-founder,” she says. Indeed, some critics are quick to point out that Polyvore wasn’t Jess Lee’s idea—that credit goes to Sadri. (A splashy 2010 New Yorker feature on Polyvore quoted Lee extensively, and arguably introduced her to the tech world.)
As the Polyvore staff grew, she and Sadri fell into a partnership where they were essentially running the company together. In 2012, Lee and Sadri decided that the CEO role was evolving: It had previously been all about building the product, Polyvore.com, but it needed to shift toward building the company, Polyvore Inc. Sadri and Lee switched roles: She became CEO, Sadri became CTO.
That May, a user on the Q&A forum site Quora posted a question asking, “Why did Polyvore remove Pasha Sadri as CEO and replace him with head of product Jess Lee?” Sadri himself posted a reply: “As we grew beyond a product/engineering team into other functions, we decided to swap roles so we could spend our time on things we are each best at. I now get to spend more time on product and technology. Jess oversees other functions in the company, something she is great at.”
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Thinking of Apple as inspiration, Lee soon led the charge to kill off a number of features, even some that were performing well. Her first cut was the site’s “Ask” section, which allowed users to solicit and give out style advice. Some users were sad to see it go; one of them took to Quora to ask why Polyvore was shutting it down. “It was by no means an easy decision,” responded Sadri. “Decisions about what not to do are just as important, if not more important, than decisions about what to do/keep.”
In January 2013, Lee and Sadri made further simplification a companywide initiative by sending an “all-hands note” that asked every single person at Polyvore to come up with a list of everything he or she worked on. “Our goal is to get the company into its simplest possible state,” Lee wrote. “I’d like every team to make a list of what work you do on a regular basis. Identify what is most impactful to the company. Then figure out what to cut.”
That e-mail about cutting features may sound like the kind of missive that would scare employees and cause anxiety, but Lee says she was happily surprised by the team’s reaction. “It also signaled that it’s okay to fail sometimes, like if we built certain features and they aren’t working out, that’s okay, as long as we get rid of them,” she says. “Many companies talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. It takes active effort and an investment of time to go back and delete things.”
In 2012, Lee expanded the company’s geographic reach by opening an office in New York City. One month after opening the Manhattan office, Polyvore treated a small group of 12 active users from all over the world (including France, Chile, and Brazil) to a trip to New York for a night out with Lee and the community managers. “We told them, ‘Guys, you mean the world to us, and without you guys there would be no site,’ ” Lee says.
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The CEO still loves to draw and read comic books, and is grateful for the continued mentorship of women like her mother and Marissa Mayer. She gives back to the community of women in business in quiet ways, behind the scenes. (She does not love public speaking.) At a Women 2.0 conference in 2013, she signed on not to speak, but to mentor at the lunch. She volunteers at “women in tech” events outside of Polyvore and always has her eye on which women at her company seem as though they could run their own startups one day. “I make sure they know that I think they could do it,” she says. “And I try to make myself helpful to them, like if they have ideas, or if they want to get a better sense of how the business works.”
Polyvore has also attracted attention for its corporate culture. On Halloween, the company holds a costume contest in which groups dress up according to a theme and then decorate one of the conference rooms. On Lee’s 30th birthday, in October 2012, her co-workers all dressed in exactly what she wears every day—combat boots, black jeans, and a black top with cutouts—and it took her until the end of the day to finally get the joke.
Now Lee will rejoin her mentor Mayer at Yahoo (the price of the acquisition was not disclosed), where she’ll work to incorporate Polyvore’s products—and unique culture—into the larger ecosystem of the purple giant.