Female Founders: Melissa Hanley Of Blitz On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Say yes to the weird and the wonderful! I think about how some of the best experiences have been because I was dragged to an event or meeting and it ended up opening the door to some of the best, most fun, most exciting work we’ve ever done. I often think about the events I didn’t go to and opportunities I didn’t take, and I wonder what saying “yes” could have brought.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Hanley,
Co-Founder, Principal, and CEO of full-service architecture and interior design firm Blitz. Since Melissa co-founded Blitz in 2019 at the age of 26, the firm has expanded rapidly with locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and St. Louis and an impressive roster of clients such as Dropbox, Spotify, Microsoft, Google, Reddit, Lucid Motors, and Verizon, to name just a few.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in a rural part of Northern California on a Christmas Tree farm. My father is a contractor and fine woodworker, and my earliest memories are of us drawing and painting together. My parents recognized this interest in art and enrolled me in after school art lessons from the age of six. Growing up in such a creative environment gave me the sense of exploration and freedom to test ideas without restraint — often to the detriment of the walls and furniture. Somehow, over the next decade, I became convinced that I should sideline creative pursuits as hobbies only and should pursue law as my profession. I’m so envious of the people who say they knew they wanted to be an architect from the time they were four years old. For me, it wasn’t until my 20th birthday. My design epiphany came during my second year of college. I was working at a law firm to pay for my tuition and preparing for law school when I made a visit to the San Francisco MoMA on my birthday — something I do nearly every year. In a moment of reflection and contemplation while sitting in front of a Rothko, I realized how inauthentic my life was. In that instant, I was called back to design. I knew that fine art wasn’t going to stimulate the part of my brain that loved the problem solving and research aspects of law. I took an architectural history class on a whim, and it opened my mind to a whole new world which I had never considered.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think one of the most interesting stories is wrapped up in Blitz’s founding. In mid-2009 at the height of the economic downturn, my co-founder (and now husband) and I were both laid off from the same firm at the same time (different conference rooms) along with ¾ of the staff. The next day, while nursing a serious tequila hangover, Blitz was born. At the time, there was a 40% unemployment rate in the A/E industry in San Francisco. We knew that if we wanted to stay in the profession, we were going to have to make our own way. Within four months, through one of Seth’s connections back in the UK, we landed Skype’s North American headquarters in Palo Alto. The size of the project quickly grew from a 10,000-square-foot space to a 90,000-square-foot building. Up until then we had been primarily designing schools and hospitals and didn’t know the first thing about creative workplace design. However, we learned quickly. We delivered the project from our dining room. I remember, in preparation for our 100 schematic design presentation, the Skype team asked us to travel to London to formally present to the executive group. They wanted the deck sent in advance so it could be printed locally. We were working around the clock to deliver a project that really should have been serviced by a team of four to five people and worked through the night before our flight. We managed to press send on the deck right as the taxi arrived to take us to the airport. After getting some much-needed sleep on the plane, we went straight into the meeting only to discover that — of course — printing parameters are different in the UK. Key sections of the presentation got cut off and it was scaled incorrectly. Whoops. Luckily, we relied on the digital version of the presentation, and it all went swimmingly. It was an exhilarating and terrifying experience figuring out how to work together, build a business, and deliver what was one of the largest projects going in the Bay Area at the time. That project was the springboard for the firm in many ways. While we didn’t set out to create a workplace interiors firm, we found that the speed and sense of creative experimentation of the project typology aligned with the way we liked to work.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who made it possible for me to do what I do. From a supportive foundation at home to incredible teachers at university to the grumpy, old men architects who took me under their collective wing and taught me how to be a professional through the school of hard knocks and hard work. I would not have the confidence, nor the tenacity required to tackle what it takes to run a growing business without these influences.
The person to whom I am most grateful is my partner. I know this is a little fundamental, but maybe that’s why it’s the first thing to come to mind. Having a life partner that shares your ambition and completely supports your goals in executing those ambitions is priceless. The fact that he is also my business partner and, if we’re being honest, the person who carried the heaviest load in forming me into an architect, makes it all the sweeter. It’s important to remember I was only 26 when we founded the company. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that any of this worked given how young and inexperienced I was. The learning curve was steep, but it was shortened by a great teacher. People usually respond to us with incredulity when we mention that we’re in business together, and quickly remark that they “could never work with their spouse.”
There are far more positive aspects of working together than negatives. We value that our work spills over into our personal lives. The fact is that Blitz is our brainchild, and we have dedicated our lives to the studio and its success. If we had to overcome challenges on the home front with an unsupportive — or just ambivalent — spouse, we would never have been able to sprint as far and as hard as we have. The shared vision, language, and shorthand is everything. I heard once that one’s choice of partner (in life) is one of the most important business decisions a founder will make. A little hyperbolic yes, but fundamentally true. I get all the support I need at home and at work that I could ever want to keep chasing the dream. As a female architect, I find this incredibly powerful. I’m also very proud of the number of women at Blitz. We are a predominantly female organization and are committed to gender pay equity and regularly reassess pay scales across the disciplines and individuals.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Obviously, I’m not an expert in sociology but I believe that this begins very early in life. Girls are taught to not take up space and, therefore, don’t take their seat at the founder’s table. On an HBR podcast I heard about a study of teenagers gathered at a friend’s house. When the friend’s parent came into the TV room with an offer of afternoon snacks, the boys in the room immediately jumped on the offer while the girls looked around anxiously at one another and demurred. The conclusion was that girls are societally trained to not be a bother, to not be pushy, to not inconvenience anyone. There are several things you must be comfortable with as a founder, namely that you have to be pushy, you have to elbow your way in, and you are going to inconvenience someone (if only your competitors). If we started the messaging at an early age that girls should own their space, I really think this would fundamentally change the framework within which women operate.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
The first task must be awareness. This concept of not owning space is so culturally ingrained we need to name it and make parents aware of it. I’m pretty sure most parents don’t want to raise their daughters to be shrinking violets, but they are, likely, completely unaware that their behavior reinforces these societal norms. I don’t know how you begin to tackle such a systemic issue.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
It would be easy to lean on ‘empathy’ as an expected response here and I think that’s just way too simplistic. I think it’s more nuanced than an emotional response to business. It is about perspective. And it is more than just women, it’s all minorities and under-represented groups. A variety of perspectives at the table means that no one is redundant, and through the diversity of viewpoints we will get to a better, more holistic solution faster. If everyone in an organization has the same background and the same life experience, then there is redundancy in decision making. Women should become founders because the business world needs to evolve to a more diverse landscape. It’s good for women but it’s also good for the world.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Myth: You get to make your own schedule. Reality: You work when, where, and how you need to make the business work and that rarely falls into a 9–5 schedule.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No. Beyond the time commitment required to start a company (think 60+ hours / week) there must be a comfort level with the constant unknown landscape. You don’t know if this venture is going to work. You don’t know if the patent will get approved. You don’t know if your staff will meet your expectations. You don’t know if the next round of funding will come through. Every aspect of your work life will be in dynamic flux for years. Things didn’t stabilize for us for at least three years. Most people aren’t great with so many variables being up in the air. Being an innately curious person is also a major key to success. As a founder I have had to learn about accounting, payroll, IT infrastructure, employment contracts, lease negotiations, janitorial agreements, etc. etc. etc. If I had “stayed in my lane” as an architect, the business never would have survived. When you’re starting out you need to be and “do all things” until you can hire the expertise. Even if you get to that point, you need a working knowledge of “all the things” to be able to interface and communicate with the experts.
In this same vein, I also don’t think every founder is cut out to be the CEO of the company they’ve built. Several of my clients have stepped into advisory or inventor roles within their companies and allowed someone else to step in as CEO. As a technician myself, I see the appeal. I was not trained in management or business strategy. What I know now I have learned from trial and error. If our company were on track for explosive growth, as is the case with many of our clients, we might seriously consider bringing in that expertise to avoid the pitfalls associated with trial and error.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take an accounting class. Learn how to read a balance sheet, a P+L and understand the weirdness that is accrual accounting. You cannot run a business of any scale on the principle of “more money coming in than going out.”
- Prioritize sleep. I learned this one early on (not that I always practice what I preach). Our first big purchase when Skype paid their first bill was new bedding. Investing in sleep pays dividends in creativity, patience, and empathy. The worst decisions I’ve made and the times I’ve been less than civil are all tied to times when I was exhausted, rung out and stressed because I was trading sleep for work.
- Take more pictures (or better yet, keep a journal). One of our clients in the early days gave us this nugget of advice and I’m so glad that they did. We’ve taken pictures of everything we’ve seen and done, but I really wish we’d gone a step farther and kept a journal. There are so many details about the experience of starting a company and the adventures we’ve embarked upon because of far-flung projects, and it’s all become a blur.
- You will never not be worried about your business. The things you worry about will change over time, but you will never be free of worries. For example, I no longer worry about the survival of the company. I worry about the happiness of our staff or the press coverage of a key project. If you are looking for a job you can close your mind to when you clock out at the end of the day, being a founder is not for you.
- Say yes to the weird and the wonderful! I think about how some of the best experiences have been because I was dragged to an event or meeting and it ended up opening the door to some of the best, most fun, most exciting work we’ve ever done. I often think about the events I didn’t go to and opportunities I didn’t take, and I wonder what saying “yes” could have brought.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Stop wasteful design. If something can be reused, reinvested, repurposed — do it. It is so typical in interior design to rip out everything existing and start anew with alarming regularity (every 24–36 months) which is outrageously wasteful.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
A glass of wine with Michelle Obama all. day. long! She is fierce, accessible and authentic.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Female Founders: Melissa Hanley Of Blitz On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.