REPEAT is a special interview series underwritten by CliftonLarsonAllen where we take a deep dive inside the minds of Minnesota’s rare repeat technology entrepreneurs. Repeat means to start a tech company, exit said company, and return start another one.
Mary Meehan co-founded Iconoculture with Vickie Abrahamson in 1992, a consumer trend research firm that raised $12m and grew to 120 employees before a sale to Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in 2010.
Following that, she established Metametrix in 2013 to introduce a scalable software platform for delivering big data to big brands that want know where the puck is going within their target markets. Part 1 of the interview can be read here.
What did you do after leaving Dayton’s to see what you were made of?
I started a company that originated from my experiences while at Dayton’s…
The information available to retailers at that time was limited to fashion trends and color trends. And I really wanted to understand more than that, like, what motivated people to come into our store vs. the one next door, exploring the social and cultural trends that help marketers understand consumer behavior.
Out of that, we launched Iconoculture in the summer of 1992 with Vickie Abrahamson and Larry Samuels, as a newsletter experiment that grew into a consulting business. We helped companies and agencies better understand their customers and the culture. Then in the late nineties we could see that technology would be influencing research and insights so we decided to embrace it and expand the company.
It was quite the adventure…there was no open source anything back then, so it was a big investment and risk on our part to develop the subscription product, which became a ‘trend database’. We figured out how to hire smart engineers that could help us translate our subjective knowledge into a more objective and consistent structure.
How did that go?
Larry decided to take a different path so Vickie and I took the business expansion forward. With some great advisors we began speaking with investors who also saw the potential of this new approach. Working with investors and a CEO we launched this new phase.
You handed your baby over to someone else, how did that feel?
We were much more vision, product and industry focused, less on the investment and financial side, so the skills and roles were well defined. It worked well and we had such a strong team and advisors around us that we were able to weather the dotcom bust that would come in 2001.
How long did Iconoculture run for and how big did things get?
Vicki and I were there for 18 years, it was such a great experience and fun time. I really miss the people the most. We had 100-120 people during the peak years.
I’m sure there were countless lessons learned, but what’s one big takeaway?
I think the essential part of the founder’s role in a business is their keen sense of a marketplace and what their product is capable of. An investor’s is to apply capital and seek a return. Sometimes these forces can be at odds, so it’s critical to have them aligned for a company to succeed. We always had a lot of ideas about what else we wanted to do because we were so passionate and invested in the business. As an entrepreneur you have to get used to the roller coaster ride, maybe even enjoy it.
Why did you stop doing it?
As an entrepreneur, I felt like it was time to move on. The company could go on without us at that point, and I wanted to think about different ideas and start something new.
Do you feel proud of what you accomplished?
Of course, yes, but at the time it was a such hair raising adventure…there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection, because you’re always moving. We had a big impact on the market research and consumer insights industries! The whole company should be proud of that.
How did you feel after selling?
I was glad…selling was just one piece of a bigger puzzle. All those experiences, successes and challenges accumulate and impact your perspective.
Any regrets accumulated along the way?
How do you live with that?
They just are.
What did you do after leaving Iconoculture?
I love the consumer insights space but I wanted to incorporate foresights in to my work. I spent a lot of time researching how to do that and I came across the field of studies –complex adaptive theory, resilience theory, and systems theory.
This is exactly how I had been viewing the world, and it gave legitimacy to my philosophy, and validated much of our subjective findings with a scientific standard.
But I also had another idea for another new business and I started developing what would then become MetaMetrix in 2010.
How is MetaMetrix going so far?
It’s going fantastic! There’s an amazing team, plenty of talent, ideas and feedback, and I continue to learn a lot every day. My goal is to operationalize it to the fullest potential.
This is a deliberate choice that I made to continue to do my own thing vs. getting a job.
Have you always had that sense of self or do you think it was developed?
I think I was born with it. But I also believe it gets reinforced along the way. Entrepreneurship is the art of business – bringing the ideas into a reality is a very compelling and liberating process.
But you have to be willing to be an outsider and to take the tradeoffs that come with it.