As the chief executive at Jellyvision Lab, Amanda Lannert sets the tone at the Lincoln Park-based tech communications company. FW: Chicago recently paid a visit to the Jellyvision Lab offices to discuss the firm’s well-known company culture, cultivating leadership skills, and how to bounce back after a lapse in confidence.
Interview by Jennifer Smith Tapp
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T-Rex in the middle of Jellyvision Lab offices
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Conferece room at Jellyvision Lab
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Lanterns at Jellyvision Lab
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Hard at work at Jellyvision Lab
WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND AND HOW DID YOU COME TO BE AT JELLYVISION LAB?
I am the kid of the chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Virginia and a nurse. So my intention in high school and college was to get a J.D., M.D., and write public policy for hospitals in what to do with abandoned embryos, euthanasia, and things like that. I ended up spending my third year at the University of Edinburgh, where I more or less studied beer and boys, and I came back behind in pre-med credits. When I called my dad and said, “I need to go post-bac; I need a fifth year of my private, liberal arts, New England school education, he said, ‘That’s fantastic, how are you paying for it?’” So I temporarily pulled the plug on the notion of going to med school or business school or law school and just said, “Alright, I’m going to have to get a job.”
I had no skills, no experience. I’d been a bartender, a babysitter, and a waitress. I didn’t have any internships and I had no network from a business perspective. And so I did what people sometimes do in that situation—I went into advertising. I had a very early job offer in my senior year by January. I was employed at Leo Burnett as soon as I graduated. I was raised by Leo Burnett in terms of thinking about big, traditional, CPG marketing; brand management; classic, big budget days—the heydays of Midwestern advertising. I was a bookish nerd who kind of fell into it.
JELLYVISION LAB RECENTLY WON BEST COMPANY CULTURE AT THE MOXIE AWARDS. CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY CULTURE?
You walk through the office, and our people are wearing pajamas at work and do mustache day, or there’s the internal Olympics, so there’s always something weird going on, and people assume that’s the culture. And what is at the core of the company is a bunch of nice, humble, hard-working people who try to be honest and kind. “Honest” meaning I speak up and give you feedback and “kind” meaning I’m trying to be constructive about it. Then they’re similarly open and non-defensive. And then we want to be helpful. We want to be earnest and honest and kind and productive. When you have a bunch of people in a trusting environment, you get to layer in a lot of things like, taking the work seriously and not taking yourself seriously, and I think we’ve always valued a good sense of humor. But it’s more important that you’re humble than you’re hilarious. Hilarious is a really nice fringe benefit, and we have had a lot of deeply hilarious people here. I know it’s like the pajama day that gets the picture in the paper, but it really is just unbelievably kind and decent people, unbelievably talented rock stars who never act like divas, that’s the core of the culture—people getting stuff done.
HAS THERE BEEN A MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER WHERE YOUR CONFIDENCE WAS SHAKEN?
There is a very public moment of shaken confidence. The company I joined after Leo Burnett was Jellyvision Inc., a gaming company. And I walked into one of Chicago’s stalwart fun companies. It was filled with writers—writers who went on to write for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. There were artists and comedians and improvisers and unbelievable tech people, making games like You Don’t Know Jack and Who Wants to be a Millionaire and TV shows on the USA network. It was an unbelievable time.
I came in as a marketer and I was president about six months later. Shortly after I joined, I got the P&L, and it was the P&L of a company about to go off a cliff. We had all these plans to try to save it, and then the sort of trifecta of doom happened. The CD-ROM market died, in no small part because we were putting Who Wants to be a Millionaire CDs into Cheerios boxes. And we completely changed the consumer value perception of CD-ROMs. They went from $20 to $10 to $5, which did not support our type of development back in the day.
Console games were going through a next-generation transition—all about the boxes and the hardware and the technology, not about mass market games. And games were going online. But no one was making money online in 2001. Then the bubble burst because nobody kept financing, and we said. “Alright we’ve got a few shots left to try to make this work. We’re going to have to tighten the belt. We’re going to have to get lean. And we’re going to have to do it for the love of gaming.”
Then the first opportunity didn’t pan out. And the second opportunity didn’t pan out. And I remember where I was sitting upstairs when we hung up the phone on the third opportunity that didn’t work out, and we knew we were going to have to ramp down the company. Jellyvision Inc. laid off 80 percent of the people in the company in a day. It was a very long day. I was in one-on-one meetings all day. But I was the executive who didn’t make it work. I was the one who didn’t make it work.
I was the president of a company that had failed to make ends meet. And we did a few things right, we were incredibly transparent, very proactive, managed to not run out of money, everyone got severance and long transitions. And we were able to, in fact, keep a core—the skeleton crew—alive. They then later came back as this company, not Jellyvision Inc., but the Jellyvision Lab.
WHO HAVE YOU LEARNED THE MOST FROM IN THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER?
There are sort of one-off moments. I’m a collector of stories, I think, in certain respects. I had a chance to meet with Chad Cooper, who is now the CTO of GiveForward. And he was the CTO of GrubHub. And they went through that incredible period. He won’t remember the meeting, but he sat there for an hour and 45 minutes and told me the story of GrubHub’s growth. What it felt like to be on the inside. And he talked about the importance of an executive team. So for him, it’s just a coffee. Just catching up. To me, I’m a student. I’m come back, and I’m like, “Alright, time to build an executive team.” And I spent 2014 building an executive team, because he gave me all this great advice and perspective. But I would say, I’ve had these one-off moments where people give me unbelievable access to their stories and their advice because I’ll have asked for it. And people are incredibly generous. I think Chicago roots for each other in a way that maybe other cities don’t. I don’t know, but I do know Chicago roots for each other. But there are a couple of people that have been really instrumental to me.
Troy Henikoff—who is the CEO of TechStars now, a serial entrepreneur, and a partner in MATH Venture—and his partner in MATH Venture, Mark Achler, the two of them, I think, adopt people. And I’m one of them that was adopted by them back in 2000. And probably a third of my professional network at least is traceable back to the two of them. So I would say that I have had people who actively mentored and invested and helped me in my career, even though I didn’t ask for it, and there’s no way that’s not worth trying to pay forward. I really do feel like I got access to some of the leaders, the makers, the doers of the Chicago tech scene. For whatever reason, they invested in me and my career and gave me a better chance of success.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE WOMEN WHO ASPIRE TO POSITIONS OF LEADERSHIP?
Start saying “How can I be helpful and what can I do?” instead of, “What can I get and how can I scale up?” It depends on what you’re interested in. If its tech, and this is a crazy idea, but start writing checks. I read somewhere—who wrote it? I would love to attribute this because it stuck with me for a long time—but if you’re making over $100,000 a year as a woman, you should be writing at least a check a year to tech. Start to change the whole fabric of what you invest, start to change the fabric of what’s invested in, let your money lead.
Other things are, show up. Be an active member on the scene. Create the perception of diversity by showing up. Be a constant student. There’s so much content out there that can make you smart for free. Take advantage of it. Go to sessions, go see Technori, read books, read blogs. Really be a lifelong student, and if that doesn’t get you where you want to go, at least you’ll have a richer mind, which is its own reward.
WHAT DO YOU DO DURING YOUR DOWN TIME?
I’m the mother of daughters—I hang out with them and my husband. I like to go on very long walks in the park—like 12 to 15 miles. It’s my therapy, my clearing the head. I also love to travel and love wine. For someone as busy as I am, I find an awful lot of time to amuse myself. I really do! People say, “Oh, I don’t have time for TV.” I’m like, “I do. I’m up on Netflix!”
I live a simple life. I have a husband of 17 years (I’ve been with him for 19)—that’s almost half my life. And my family—my broader family—is really important to me. So usually on the weekends, I’m hanging out, being with my “peeps.” I do work a lot. I am someone who does have a computer in my hand pretty much all the time. Maybe I’m just immature or something, but I do need to amuse myself on a regular basis!