Today, we're introducing Maria Thomas, seasoned ecommerce leader, trusted friend of Reaction, and now, a strategic advisor on our newly-formed Advisory Board. A life-long builder of businesses and teams, Maria was a product head during the early days of Amazon, as well as the first appointed CEO at Etsy, where she led the company through a prolific growth boom both domestically and internationally. And, as evidenced by her crafty response to our final question, she's super personable and whip-smart! We asked Maria to share some of her insights on the ecommerce landscape, startup life, the role of an advisor, and more.
Tell me about your journey! How did it lead you to where you are today?
Well, I was born and raised in West Virginia, and between then and now, a lot has happened. I always start with saying that I am a business person by education and experience. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve been all about building young startups and turning them into lasting and profitable companies. It began at Amazon back in 1999, and it’s progressed, from NPR, where I started the digital media team, to Etsy, where I served as CEO. After Etsy, I helped run SmartThings, a smart home technology company that was acquired by Samsung in 2014.
I’ve been involved in ecommerce over the years in many different ways, usually building product and strategy. I was there during the early days of Amazon, which is where I learned all about the classic e-tail model. Even at NPR, we had a little shop that sold branded merch. That was well before the days of Shopify or Magento, so trying to launch an online shop was a real pain in the neck. At Etsy, it was all about the marketplace approach. And at SmartThings, it was all about how to stand up an ecommerce shop. In some ways, my whole career has been tied to commerce one way or the other.
Now, I work with startups as an advisor by helping founders see around corners, figure out solid business strategy, and bring teams together. I’m also serving on boards, such as Reaction’s, as well as a couple others, like Spoonflower, an ecommerce company based in North Carolina, and McClatchy, a publicly-traded media company which owns a number of newspapers across the country.
So what piqued your interest in Reaction?
In early 2013, I was working at SmartThings, and a part of what we were doing required ecommerce. Our smart home product came in the form of software and hardware, but we needed to sell the hardware in order for the customer to use the software. I was the person who was in charge of standing up the ecommerce site, and I ended up picking Spree Commerce. We went through the whole process of working with the platform, figuring out how we were going to get things up and running, and in the end, we used a third-party consulting firm based in Montreal to help us customize the platform. Even though we were using an open source platform, we were still investing money in a consulting firm! When Sara and Aaron came to me with the idea for Reaction, I had been working with Spree for 9 to 12 months. At that point, I thought, “Oh my god. Absolutely. This is exactly what the world needs!”
I’ve been around ecommerce since the early days of Amazon, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of interesting use cases. SmartThings was a startup company that needed commerce in a very particular way, but we were building it off of an open source platform that candidly did not have many options at the time. There just weren’t many developers creating tools and plugins for Spree.
That’s what made Reaction seem so exciting. It was the most forward-thinking modern approach to an open source ecommerce model. And what's even more exciting is that so many components of ecommerce have changed over the years, yet it’s still such a relatively young industry. There's enormous growth potential.
Did you ever have an advisor? If so, how did you decide who to turn to?
At Etsy, we brought together an advisory board in the same way that Reaction did. I specifically pulled together 3-4 people who I thought would be helpful from a product and technology perspective. There was quite a bit of technical debt when I first came into Etsy, so I made a deliberate effort to build my sounding board and form a group of advisors that was largely technical.
Outside of the context of a particular company, I try to hone certain relationships that aren’t specific to just one role or organization, but involve people who have an interesting and helpful approach to problem solving. I try to call on them periodically when I’m either thinking about different issues or a very specific set of problems. For instance, right now I’m working with a startup on a branding project, so I’ve been connecting with people who have very smart ideas on branding. Over the years, when you’ve been doing the same things more or less, you get to know people, keep up with them, and hopefully, pay it forward, so that you too may participate in the network of people with great ideas.
Why do you prefer working with ecommerce startups, and what are some of the challenges you've faced?
Two things: It’s really just so thrilling to be on the inside of new ideas. When you’re around a new idea that you can just feel and imagine, you start to think, “Hey! I can see how this thing could build into the future.” It feels good to spend time on an idea like that—there’s nothing more thrilling. When you believe in what you're working on, you're excited, invested, and hoping to solve a problem or bring a solution to the world that touches people’s lives. That’s what’s always been fun for me: being around new ideas and surrounding myself with the excitement of building.
Aside from bringing goodness to the world, it’s also just the pure challenge of working out a complex puzzle that excites me—not just the technical buildout, but also the strategy and the approach. Startups are typically built on new ideas, and new ideas by definition require we find new ways to penetrate the consumer mind, to achieve importance in a way that previously wasn’t on the map. I find that to be a really exciting puzzle to solve.
How will your role impact leadership, product, and culture at Reaction?
Each startup is slightly different, but I think it’s really useful to have a trusted partner who acts as a sounding board—someone who listens without judgement and plays things back to people. I was the CEO of Etsy at a time when the company had reached a high-grossing point in its life, and there were just so many things coming at me. Having a trusted partner who understands what you’re trying to do is invaluable. I try to take this role seriously by not making too many commitments, so that I can focus on the right things, work with the people I want to support, and feel genuinely excited.
The other piece of it is a little more tactical. I like to draw from the pool of experiences I’ve had throughout my career—leadership roles at companies that are consumer and brand-driven, with a common commerce thread running through them—and offer up any kind of specific tactical advice around certain issues that come up, like fundraising, product development, marketing, etc.
What's a piece of advice that you would give to your younger self?
Trust your instincts. Speak your mind. I grew up with a lot of guidance from my parents on being a polite person, but when you’re working at a startup, things are moving quickly and there’s a lot to do. I’m not advocating that people be jerks, but sometimes, you just gotta go with your instincts, say what’s on your mind, and get moving. If you’re overly deferential, you won’t get what you need done.
If you were to launch an online store on Reaction, what would it be called? What would you sell?
My store would be a passion project called Ouzeria Maria—a nod to Greek ouzerias, like osterias in Italy. It would feature the many fine foods, drinks, and wholesome products from all over Greece. It would be an agora, or a marketplace. We all know Greek yogurt and Greek olives, but did you know that there are different ouzos from almost every island? Or, have you tried Greek mountain tea and experienced its amazing medicinal properties? And, of course, there's Greek sea salt, olive oil, and so much more. Think Eataly, but, you know, from the Greeks.
To learn even more about Maria and Reaction's Advisory Board, check out the full press release.