Shirley Yang graduated college with the aspirations to climb the corporate ladder and do it well. Yang started her career on the product team at Myspace, owned by Fox Interactive, followed by Sony Playstation then Audible, an Amazon company.
A few years later, Shirley earned the role of digital product manager at NBCUniversal in New York. Yang oversaw the launch of their mobile apps, participated in projects for the 2012 Olympics and ensured NBC was at the forefront of everything mobile and social. Like many, though, she found it challenging to implement many of the ideas she was most passionate about across such a large organization. That challenge made Yang increasingly eager to take control of her career, so she went back to the startup world at an influencer marketing firm.
During her time working with creative individuals, she started to notice trends around the gig economy. The biggest trend that caught her eye was the number of millennials working as freelancers or starting their own businesses on the side while working a corporate job. But Yang felt that there was no platform for self-employed workers, creatives, and freelancers to professionally connect (LinkedIn, the default choice for many, catered to the corporate world with very little room for this rapidly-emerging audience).
Yang decided to solve this problem by creating Muses, a platform for entrepreneurs, creatives, influencers and freelancers to connect professionally. She shares how her corporate career shaped her to become the entrepreneur she is today:
Yola Robert: Your first job out of college was at Myspace. How did working at one of the first successful social media platforms shape the way you view social networks? Have you implemented any fundamentals that you may have learned at Myspace into Muses?
Shirley Yang: I was on the tech side of things when I worked at Fox Interactive Media, who had acquired Myspace. The tagline for Myspace was ‘a place for friends.’ People who sign up for social networks are there to search for and discover other users in order to grow something—friendships, professional connections, life opportunities. As a product manager, I’ve always kept this in mind – to make it super easy for user profile discoverability and sharability. When I first started Muses, our motto was ‘friends who grow together stay together.’ The genesis here is similar (I haven’t thought about this until answering this question) – we are a platform built on community and relationships.
Robert: What was the most challenging aspect of transitioning from startup culture at Amazon to a more corporate culture at NBC?
Yang: I was on the Product team while at Audible, and interacted primarily with developers, engineers, and other Product Managers. It was a 300-person company at the time. NBC is an amazing place in so many ways, but as with many larger organizations, on joining I found that divisions outside of Product and Tech drove many product decisions and could often have conflicting priorities. That can be a fun challenge, but I’ve learned I thrive most in an environment where I can be more directly involved across all stages of growing a winning product, which drove me toward a more entrepreneurial environment.
Robert: What was the catalyst in your life to leave a successful corporate career to start your own business?
Yang: You know the feeling when the dishes in the sink first start piling up, you think, oh I’ll get to it. And one day you look at it and finally think, ‘That’s it! I’m sick of this. I’ve got to do something about this.’ It took some years of inner conflict—feeling that desire to build something on my own while simultaneously feeling that I’m ‘supposed to’ work for a big-name company in a corporate environment—before I finally realized I just needed to pull the trigger and do it!
I’ve always been an ‘entrepreneur’ coming up with new ideas and strategies for companies to stay ahead of trends, competitors, and products. But larger corporate environments can naturally move at a slower speed, and like many people I found myself frustrated more than a few times because we didn’t get to move fast enough to secure our market position or first-mover advantage.
I’m a believer of if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to far, go together. I needed to finally break-free and run ahead with my ideas.
Robert: The gig economy is growing amongst the millennial population: what trends do you see in the Muses community that are going to further shape jobs for younger generations?
Yang: 53.7 million Americans (36% of the workforce) are already freelancing in the US, contributing $1.4 trillion to the US economy annually. What’s super interesting is, people who join Muses use their ‘side hustle’ title when they sign up. For example, a Marketing Manager who also writes a fashion blog would put the Marketing Manager title on LinkedIn and ‘Fashion Blogger’ title on Muses. This is great and speaks to our core mission – helping people turn their passions into careers!
The self-employed users on Muses fill both sides of the economy: they provide products or services and at the same time have the need to hire. Sometimes the self-employed users are just starting off and don’t have a large budget to pay freelancers. However, they are able to provide products and services for trade and create project partnerships with other users in the same boat.
We are seeing more and more millennials, especially the ones who recently graduated from college, who would rather work two to three freelance projects at once than have a corporate nine to five job. The thought of balancing what Tony Robbins called, ‘the art of fulfillment with the science of achievement’ is more important to this generation than ever before. Freelance and contract work is enabled through digitization – workers can manage their own schedules and choose their own work location. Flexibility and independence win here compared to a steady workplace.
Robert: What advice do you have for women who have a successful career in corporate America, but are considering starting their own business?
Yang: The best thing to do before starting off on your own is to have a financial plan. Also, remember that plans rarely workout so have a backup plan! If you are starting your own business and need funding, remember there are many options other than venture capital. Never aim to be an overnight success, because you’ll be disappointed – set reasonable expectations and micro-goals and take it a month at a time.
Robert: What is next for Muses?
Yang: Muses is a professional network for entrepreneurs, creators, the ‘no-collars’ who are in the gig economy. We’ve helped thousands of small business owners and individuals connect with prospective customers and get hired either through paid or ‘barter’ gigs (win-win arrangements where users exchange products and services with each other while building their businesses). We started off as an influencer network, but quickly saw there is a true need for the larger gig economy – serving self-employed workers, freelancers, skills-based professionals, including the social media influencers and bloggers we were already servicing.
In terms of what’s next, from a platform perspective, we are currently on iOS and even though we have users in 121 countries, 80% are in the US. We plan to create a desktop and Android versions of Muses in the next year and begin our international expansion. From a vertical perspective, our current users are primarily in the lifestyle, beauty, fashion, food, retail & CPG industries. We will want to expand to more B-to-B companies.
Robert: What is one failure you have been able to turn into a success?
Yang: I’d like to zoom out and look at all my past experiences to answer this question. What at the time may have looked like the greatest failure to me, in hindsight is the best scar tissue. I don’t need to hide it, I’ve grown stronger and smarter because of it. I’ve been laid-off, bullied for being the youngest manager who was “too fashionable”, stuck at a role with no upward mobility, etc. The list runs long when you push the boundaries for yourself and for those around you. I’ve learned to turn each “failure” into ammo and tools I can use for future challenges I face. The important thing here is: it’s not about the actual failure, but how you get back up from it.
It’s like a video game: you level up when you are experienced at slaying monsters from the past. With practice you learn exactly what strategies to deploy when you see similar obstacles lay ahead. The top three tools that have helped me through failure are simple but powerful: grit, tenacity, and empathy.
Robert: Now knowing what you know, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?
Yang: I would tell myself that everything is going to be okay. I am a type-A perfectionist who had lists of to-dos and one, three, five, ten-year plans for myself. The hardest thing for me to do when I was young was to cope with life when it didn’t go according to how I had planned it. What a concept! Knowing that success is a jungle gym and not a clear path helped a lot. Then learning to ‘think less and do more’ is what took me to the next step and keeps me going.
The other thing I would tell myself, which is a sensitive subject, is don’t buy into gender roles. I was more concerned by the way others judged me when I was in my late teens and early twenties – I wanted to be pretty but not too sexy, intelligent but not intimidating, I wanted people to like me but can’t be overly friendly, etc. I was very distracted and would sometimes act differently in front of different groups of people. I think the societal consciousness around this have been improving since those days, but we still have a long way to go. Bottom line: stay true to yourself, know who you are, and try not to worry about what others think of you—even though it can be hard.