Mentor Monday: Janet Lieberman went from corporate life to engineering sex toys
Janet Lieberman is the Co-founder of Dame Products. In speaking with her, we knew we had to interview her for the blog. Her startup success, refreshing honesty and practical career advice makes us honored to have her as a mentor with The Mentor Method.
Describe yourself in three sentences.
I'm a mechanical engineer by trade and the co-founder of Dame Products. We make sex toys. Before I started a company, I did a lot of other things, but the company eats your life.
What made you decide to originally pursue a career in tech?
I come from a math/science family. I didn't want to pick a major until I found something that spoke to me. Mechanical engineering was it. I often felt dumb my first few years at MIT, but that was the subject I could just see, and it was strange when I realized certain classmates I always thought of as smarter than me couldn't. I started in precision machine design (3D printers) straight out of school, but I realized my heart was in the intersection of engineering and design, so I moved to the world of consumer product design after that. The products are deceptively simple - very few parts, and you try to make them as fool proof as possible - but user experience becomes so much more important. When you produce products at scale, every detail matters - there's only so many prototypes you can make, but you somehow have to predict how to make thousands turn out exactly the same way. I combined the two fields at Makerbot as the lead engineer for the Replicator Mini - a consumer-friendly 3D printer. But then I decided to start my own company in 2014.
You mentioned during our call that you've been fired 4 times. What did you learn through that experience? Also, what were the circumstances?
My first job I hit a rough patch and quit. It was the right choice for me at the time, but it was 2009, and there wasn't a lot of work. I felt like I learned my lesson. Getting fired isn't scary; being unemployed in a dead job market without being able to collect unemployment is scary.
When there isn't a lot of work, a lot of the job postings are for "revolving doors" - companies that hire and fire often. Whether it's a hostile work environment or poor planning, it's rarely a sign of a company making good decisions. Some days I'd go through the job boards and say to myself "worked there, worked there, applied there, interviewed there" all the way down the list.
A past boss called me fearless, and he didn't mean it as a compliment. I would rather do my job well than keep my job. I'd rather have the tough conversations ("it's not OK to call me 'emotional' whenever my data doesn't support what you thought the answer would be") than just ignore it and hope my boss isn't saying the same things to my younger female coworkers. I tend to give the same answer up the chain of command as down, and would rather find the root cause of a problem than cover my ass. It makes me effective, it makes me friends for life, but it also makes me highly fire-able.
The first time I was let go, the CEO asked me if I liked working there, and I said, truthfully, "some days, yes, some days, no".
The second time, my boss found out fifteen minutes before me and was livid. He told me another, fairly quiet coworker had been telling him the week before that I was such a joy to work with, which was really out of character and even a little awkward. So he knew it was a boldfaced lie when the office manager told him that same co-worker wasn't comfortable working with me, and that's why I was being let go.
The third time I was told I didn't "know my place". The fourth was that I "don't work well with others". I had a "Congradudolences" party for myself after that one with probably 30 coworkers, and two people from that company work at Dame Products now.
How did you bounce back from being let go?
I've never been fired from a job when I hadn't already been looking for a new one. There's precious little job security these days. You risk losing your job no matter what you do. If I did my job honestly and earnestly, and try to do right by people, then at least I can feel good about my behavior.
It's important to find your touchstones. Question what you could have done better, but find the things you can hold onto that you know you've done well. Lots of people who've worked with me previously actively choose to work with me again, so I can't be all bad. I have things I know I accomplished.
I always let myself take a week or two off afterwards to mourn and recoup - there's no point in applying to a new job when you're still mad about the last one.
What made you decide to start your own company?
I'd worked at a lot of small companies in slightly different roles. I'd seen a lot of ways different departments could interact and how products go from ideas to customer returns you're trying to take apart to diagnose. I felt like I knew a lot about how companies get things done, and had been thrown in enough new territory that I knew I could pick the rest up. I gave up on trying to find a stable work environment, and decided try to build my own.
What fears did you have in changing your career path and how did you overcome them?
To be honest, I chose this path because I was more afraid of working in another toxic environment, watching a company make short-sighted decisions while I can't do anything to stop it, than I was of starting a new company. Starting a company felt like a second puberty - you're high, you're low, you're crying on the subway - but I found it to be a more generalized anxiety.
I just had to push through and let the collapse come after. There was a TV show called the Middleman. There was a line from that "You can't cry until you've reached the international safe house". That's sometimes what it felt like. The emotions are going to be there one way or another, so try to make sure the practical happens.