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Mackenzie Barth & Sarah Adler | Founders of Spoon University

It's time to ditch the mean girl myth, because by now we know that women aren't just better together—they are unstoppable. Get empowered by these female power couples when we profile sisters, friends, co-founders and collaborators. Because you know what they say: behind every successful woman, there's another woman.

Today, we chat with Mackenzie Barth and Sarah Adler, the founders of Spoon University, a food community, network, and website with chapters at hundreds of college campuses. Read on for how they decided to go into business together, how they balance their partnership and friendship, and how they've conquered challenges together along the way.


Where are you from?

Mackenzie is from a northern suburb of Chicago and Sarah is from Austin, TX.


What brought you two together?

We met because we were in the same dorm freshman year at Northwestern. We went on Birthright together, were in the same sorority, and when we got back from our semesters abroad, we launched a food print magazine together—that was Spoon 1.0.


At what point did you decide to build a business together? What did that process look like?

We had a lot of success building Spoon as a community and print magazine on campus, so much so that people at other schools started reaching out for advice on how to build something similar at their universities. Instead of just giving them advice, we wrote up a playbook for starting a chapter, built them a website, and helped them launch. When we graduated we decided to give ourselves a few months to test if this was a viable business. When our initial indicators proved successful, we moved to NYC and started working 24/7 out of our apartment to scale Spoon to universities around the world. In 2015, we went through the Techstars accelerator program in NYC to help us focus, then we raised $2.5M, grew a team, and then were acquired by Scripps Networks Interactive in 2017. We went through many life stages of a company in a very short period of time!


What advice could you give on working closely with a friend and balancing a personal and professional relationship?

Being friends first helped us have a level of trust for each other that usually takes years to develop in a professional setting, which was hugely valuable in building the business. But when you know someone so well, it’s easy to take communication for granted. Our advice is that even though you can usually read each other’s minds, it’s always better to talk things out instead of assuming what the other one is thinking or feeling.


What are the biggest challenges of being your own boss and how does your partner-in-crime help you?

One of the hardest things about being your own boss is that you don’t get a lot of feedback. Even though you might ask for it constantly, employees don’t always feel that comfortable giving constructive criticism up the chain. That’s why having a cofounder is so crucial—they can help give you feedback in a way that feels honest and compassionate, and because you work so closely together, you know you can really trust what they have to say.


How do you divide up the work between the two of you, and how have your roles changed over time?

We were pretty intentional from the beginning in dividing up roles clearly. Sarah manages all tech, product, and design, and Mackenzie oversees community, content, and experiential. While we’ve always shared opinions on the other person’s area, the leader of that department has the ultimate final say. It’s worked really well for us since we trust each other in our designated areas so much. Sarah managed the community team for a period of time, but other than that, the roles haven’t changed that much!


What about your partner inspires you?

K: I’m constantly inspired by Sarah’s linear way of thinking. She’s able to take my ideas and distill them into a clear statement or process that, for my very non-linear brain, seems like a huge feat. She always helps us make sure we’re clear and on the same page before moving forward in a conversation or a project.

S: And I’m inspired by Kenzie’s fearlessness and calm under pressure. Over the past few years, through all the crises we’ve had to handle together, Kenzie never raises here voice or loses her sh*t. She’s my rock when things are crazy, and she’s taught me how to be better rock for other people, too. Plus, she is fearless in big and small ways and has modeled for me how to conquer my own fears—how to walk confidently into situations where you’re in way over your head, and how to always ask for discounts.

 

How do you motivate each other?

We’re pretty naturally motivated on our own. Both of us have really strong work ethics and love problem solving. Beyond that, we have very complementary skills, so we’re constantly motivating each other to learn from one another and be the best version of ourselves.


What do you love doing together?

Solving hard problems and exploring good restaurants in NYC. We’re also roommates, so every now and then we’ll order takeout and sit on our couch and do nothing. And sometimes Sarah drags Kenzie to World Science Festival events to learn about black holes, and Kenzie takes Sarah to talks on consciousness at the Assemblage.


When do you feel the most empowered?

When we see our team learning, growing, and taking initiative. Building something of our own was really empowering, but seeing others own the vision and build something for themselves on top of that has been even more fulfilling.


What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from the other?

S: It’s advice, but it’s also a question: “What happened when you asked them for a discount?” which implies that I didn’t weeny out and was aggressive and scrappy, and that I should have been successful.

K: Sarah has helped me learn how to take a step back from running with a new idea to make sure I’m appropriately identifying a problem and confirm that that problem is worth solving, before diving into solutions.


What is your process when approaching your creative work?

S: One of the biggest challenges in creative work is being stuck in your current frame of reference with your current assumptions and limitations. As an engineer, I spend a lot of my day thinking linearly, solving problems and coding — and thinking outside of the box is inefficient and takes up a lot of space. So when I switch gears into larger projects that are more creative, it’s important to create that space: that might mean physically changing locations, meditating, doing deep thinking while on a vacation (“...vacation”). And when I need small doses of creativity during the day, I’ll step outside for a second, get a cup of coffee, and fully switch contexts.

K: Creative ideas come naturally to me (sometimes too often!) so what I focus a lot of energy on is figuring out how to prioritize them and communicate them effectively to the team. I keep a notebook where I write down my ideas, then I take a few days to sit on them, and then I measure them up against what we’re currently doing to evaluate if they’re worthy enough to consider adding to our roadmap. I’ve found that if I share my creative ideas too early or often, or without clear context or next steps, it can be overwhelming to people that are very process-oriented and are already working through a plan.



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