Dorian Howard: How She Went From a Big Shot Studio Executive to Startup Founder
More and more people are now are starting companies at a young age, some of them don’t have any corporate experience whatsoever. However, could not having any corporate experience be a potential crutch? Meet Dorian Howard, she is the Co-founder of Milk & Honey Shoes, an e-commerce site that offers customized designs for woman’s shoes. She first started out in the entertainment industry, and worked her way up to becoming Vice President For Production at Paramount. There, she oversaw films including “The Last Airbender” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” However, after more than a decade in the entertainment business, she let go of everything she had to pursue her dream of becoming an entrepreneur. She sacrificed her fancy title, her own personalized parking spot, and financial stability to build her company in a small office in Downtown Los Angeles — all this in an attempt to make her mark in the startup world, a place where many has tried and failed.
With her experience in the entertainment business, tackling a tough industry known for many failures is nothing new for Dorian. After having to start from scratch and work hard to learn new things native to startup world veterans, she has already seen some great success, completing successful funding rounds and forming celebrity collaborations.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dorian for an exclusive interview. Here, we discuss whether entrepreneurs should seek corporate experience, the benefits of joining a startup accelerator, and how she handles tough VCs.
Tell us about your past as a VP at Paramount
Working in film is what I wanted to do from the time I was probably 18. That was when I was looking at what was out there and I was always obsessed with television, always thought movies are pretty cool. You know, I grew up in Suburban New Jersey so I didn’t know anyone who worked in the entertainment business, who worked in the music business, I mean, that was just not the world I come from. Dads were bankers who commuted into Manhattan and moms were school teachers. And my mom was a therapist, my dad owned a restaurant. So, it just wasn’t… I didn’t know that it existed. So once I learned that there were all these amazingly cool jobs out there, I quickly kind of set my sights on becoming an executive at a studio, that’s what I wanted to do. So, lots of twist and turns to get there, but I’m a pretty driven person so it’s head down, work hard, you know, work smart, work hard, know a lot of people, be good at what you do and all of a sudden I looked up and, you know, I got to the place I wanted to be 10 years later. But it was not everything I hope it would be. It was a great job, but I figured there’s a really kind of good clean place to stop and start something else. And I come from non-entrepreneurial family both my parents have their own businesses. So, my sister and I who’s my co-founder in Milk & Honey, we always talked about what’s going to happen next because people don’t stay on those corporate jobs forever, right? They either work your way up and out or you get fired or you go try something else and it just was — we are both in a really good time in our lives to go do something crazy.
How big was the risk in starting Milk and Honey?
I mean, it’s a huge risk. I think the benefits of starting your company later in your career is that you have a little bit of a financial cushion. My sister and I both were making nice salaries and had been for a few years so we could take the risk of not working for a year or two but it’s a, you know, forget about losing my salary. I lost my expense account, I hadn’t paid for a movie ticket in 10 years. I remember the first time I went to the movie after I went to the arc light and I turned to my boyfriend and go “It’s $16 to go to the movies!” And he’s like “Yes I know.” But I had the corporate card and, you know, hadn’t paid for a meal or a magazine subscription or anything in year. So, it’s definitely takes a lot of getting used to, kind of recalibrating your life to fit into an entrepreneur startup budget.
What is the hardest part of running your own company?
Everything! I think that’s what’s been most surprising. Nothing is easy and there are twist and turns that you could never predict and things that you never thought about — how do you possibly know until you’re in that exact situation? I mean one of the things I always think back and laugh is the day I had to figure out the harmonized tariff code for importing exotic materials from Asia to the United States. And I’m just thinking “Oh, I just wanted an e-commerce company — and all of a sudden you’re dealing with international shipping and exotic materials”, and you know, in that moment you — god bless for Google and you figure it out, I mean that’s been lesson number one is you just have to put your head down and figure it out, because there’s no Human Resources Department, there is no Mail Room, there is no Legal department. Especially when you start out, for the first year, we’re everything. You know, one day I said “Okay, I’m going to be a lawyer today and I work on a budget contracts.” And the next day I go “Okay, I’m the accountant today and I deal with our sales tax.” I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff before I started the company.
Do you feel there are advantages to starting your company later in life?
I think it’s a huge advantage to be able to start a little bit later because A, I knew how to work hard, right? I’ve worked for some very very demanding people. I’ve gotten my behind kicked in a very public way for some very important people in the business and you learned that sometimes no isn’t an answer, that is the most important lesson I learned from my first job when I was working Miramax, no is just not an option,“No, no, like go back and figure it out! You have to”. And that attitude has been probably the most useful lesson that I learned in my early days of being an assistant that I’ve carried over here but also just in terms of — I’ve been in rooms with big powerful people in the entertainment business. So then, when there’s these big powerful VCs walking in, I’m like “I can handle it.” I remember I was talking to that potential investor and he said “This is good. I don’t have to do any CEO training and you know how to carry yourself. You know how to handle a room with heavyweights.” And that certainly comes from, you know, years of experience of dealing with big producers of having to not be starstruck when you’re in the room with the celebrity and just, keeping your composure has been certainly helpful to some of these VCs.
Do you think all entrepreneurs should have corporate experience?
Even where I sit, absolutely. I don’t think you necessarily need to wait as long as I did, but having 2-3 years in corporate experience — it shows you the way things traditionally work. You know, one of my favorite saying is “You need to know what the rules are in order to know how to break them.” And I think that’s what I take in the startup world a lot is I know how Human Resources Departments are supposed to work. There are certain things I’ve taken from them and there are certain things I think are ridiculous and just corporate fluff so I don’t. But you do need to understand what it’s like to be scared of your boss, right? I mean no one in my company will ever be scared of me or my co-founder because that’s not the way we do things, but I’ve had bosses I’ve been scared of and that does changed the way you handle things. It changes your attention to detail. It changes your outlet on accepting responsibility for things you may have messed up. And being in those types of situations, I think are really helpful because the discipline that’s needed to work in a startup, it’s hardcore. It really is and being in a corporate environment is helpful I think in being able to weather the storm with the startup.
Would you say Milk and Honey is more traditional or creative, when compared to larger corporations?
We’re definitely not traditional. One of the things that my co-founder and I love about having company is that we can run it anyway we want and we both have work for so many people in our career. Some have been amazing wonderful mentors and some have been full on tormentors, I mean terrible, terrible people. So, you know, we always want to have very open environment. If you’re unhappy, tell me why. If you need something fixed, let’s change it. I don’t pay what a big corporate company pays. And the hours are terrible and everyone is overwork all the time so you do need to make an environment where people can grow, where people can learn, where you can give them something back, right? They’re giving you their time and their passion and as a manager we are responsible for helping them grow professionally also.
With your sister (and co-founder) in Hong Kong, how does that works on a day to day basis?
I don’t know it any other way. [The] company has always been structured this way because the first thing we did when we decided we wanted to do this is, packed her up and moved her to Hong Kong. It’s tough in the fact that our staff meeting start at 6 PM and they’re not quick, so it really asks a lot of our team to work late to answer emails late at night, answer emails early in the morning. [Right] now we have a team we’re working with in New York which means 7:30 AM conference calls for me in order to make everything work for Hong Kong and New York. So, it’s tough, but the good news is, someone is always working. So, when I go to sleep at night, I wake up and half our team is overseas, so I wake up in the morning to 15 things being done and we can kind of pick those pieces up, get those done in the next 12 hours and then when they wake up, we’ve move the ball further down the field. So, it’s nice to have a 24 hour clock of people working at Milk and Honey. There are little things that are really tough in China that you don’t think about. Obviously I co-founded the company to open up a big account and to register our business in China, I actually had to be there in person to sign the documents. There’s no other way around it. She couldn’t be on it alone. I had to be there. Frustrating things like being able to move money from Hong Kong to China and it’s a cash-based business. There’s so much that what we do is based in cash that it’s hard from accounting standpoint and so it’s hard to open credit cards. There’s just a lot of things that are much easier in the United States that she has to deal with over there. She’s always been itchy to like go out and travel. She is someone who always wanted to live abroad. She is someone where if we had a three day weekend when we’re living in New York City, she’s like “Fantastic. I can go to Croatia for 72 hours.” I mean, she’s always been someone who’s up for adventure. Boredom and my sister are not a good combination. So, it’s been an exciting time for her to live overseas and to travel in that part of the world.
What was your experience like with LaunchpadLA, and would you recommend it to other startups?
The reason we ended up joining an accelerator was a very — one of these watershed moments for us as a company where I met with a guy who’s actually with now a VC, at the time he was working in an e-commerce company and someone had put us in touch and he said to me very bluntly “Why I’m meeting with you?” I said “Oh, well, so and so suggested we chat.” And he goes “Well, what’s your story. Tell me in 10 seconds or less.” And I said “I went to NYU from New Jersey. Move to Los Angeles 10 years ago. Job at Paramount. Entertainment. Started this company.” And he goes “Oh, I get it. No one knows who you are. You’re not from this world. You didn’t work at Facebook, you didn’t work at Google. You didn’t go to Stanford, you didn’t go to HBS. No one knows you.” And up until that moment, I thought that my past history being successful in a big company and having that background would be helpful and I realized it’s true. This is a whole new world, new players, new people, new vocabulary, we needed to be introduced to it properly and we needed to have the foundation of what it means to be a tact startup in Los Angeles. So, for us going through Launchpad was spectacular because it really was — you’re introduced the proper way. Being a Launchpad company says “Of everything that’s in Los Angeles, these are one of the 10 companies that we believe have a real shot and are going to raise money and are going to workout in the long run. So, it’s just — anyone who comes to LA that wants to know what’s happening, you can go to the 3 or 4 accelerators out there and get a really quick notes version of what is happening in LA. So, meeting mentors, introductions to potential financiers, I mean, these were fantastic doors that Launchpad opened for us.
What is the most valuable experience you’ve taken and utilized from Launchpad?
We really was learning how to position your company properly. Learning the vocabulary that VCs want to hear, right? So — my sister and I both have marketing backgrounds, we always called that “marketing”. In this world it’s now called customer acquisition. So, its little things like your vocabulary is your tell of whether you belong or you don’t belong. So, understanding the verbiage and understanding how you should position things is really important for us.
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