Summers McKay is the CEO of Optimist Daily, where she helps good things grow. As an executive, she describes herself as “vivacious, driven and innovative” focused on helping businesses achieve high growth. She also the “courage to do something big.”
At Optimist Daily, Summers McKay “creates and grows revenue aggressively, while building loyal teams who love their jobs and perform at the top of their capacity.” The company also benefits greatly from her experience in developing and launching new products, as well as her entrepreneurial nature and drive.
Summers McKay also helps Optimist Daily as a “highly resourceful leader with broad knowledge base,” enjoying good “relationships with contractors willing to execute projects effectively and efficiently.”
Before Optimist Daily, Summers McKay amassed a wealth of experience in helping businesses grow. For example, she was “recruited to lead funded startups from concept to market and expansion; established first business skills education program for UCLA undergrads,” which soon grew into a recurring program.
Before becoming CEO at Optimist Daily, Summers McKay worked as acting COO. For the job, she “oversaw technical relaunch of OptimistDaily.com.”
Under Summers McKay, Optimist Daily publishes content every day, and boasts of more than 50,000 visits every month. Moreover, the company’s Facebook page has 70,000+ users, with a mailing list of 18,000+ subscribers.
I like to remind entrepreneurs to lead with instinct supported by data and consider both with equal measure. Summers McKay, Optimist Daily
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Summers McKay: Weeding my parents’ garden as a kid in suburban Colorado gave me my first lessons as an entrepreneur. Every summer my mother would set my big brother and I to work weeding what seemed like the most massive garden ever imagined. Between that, the swim team, riding our bikes, and playing at the nearby creek — we were always busy, worked hard and learned the basic skills for helping things grow. Productivity was a fundamental requirement of my childhood, and I credit my grit and determination to those formative years. Along with that grit though, came wonder — that sense of awe when you see a project through and watch a garden flourish.
After becoming disillusioned by the pressures to focus on the negative, I abandoned my career as a reality television producer to pursue my passion of building businesses that do good AND do well. I got my MBA at UCLA Anderson and embarked into the mission-driven startup world. Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve left a fair amount of attempts in my wake, some more successful than others. I had a successful blog business while in graduate school — due largely to first mover advantage — and then fell flat on my face with an organic coconut oil based lubricant business, due to resource constraints and overall overwhelm with the sexual health and intimacy industry. I’ve since worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs crafting business plans, pitch decks, and ran a successful single shingle consulting business. That’s how I encountered The Optimist Daily.
I came to lead The Optimist Daily after consulting with its stakeholders on the viability of the business for several months. We recognized the unprecedented opportunity of a highly passionate audience, committed to the share-worthy positive stories, the solutions focused orientation, mixed with the extraordinary commitment of more than 5% of the company’s audience voluntarily paying a monthly subscription fee. There was something very special about the rough early days of The Optimist Daily that made it clear the business, with the right tending, could flower into an unstoppable force for positivity. It’s been a fantastic journey so far, and we are only just starting out!
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Summers McKay: I like to remind every entrepreneur that they will give up 2,000 times — and then wake up and start all over again. The commitment required to be an entrepreneur is not a commitment to succeed, but instead one to get back up again after you fail. For me, my mission has always outranked my product. I am on a mission to help good things grow and to prove that doing good can do well. I am on a mission to upend the notion of shareholder capitalism at the cost of stakeholder, environmental, and community abuse. That keeps me going as an entrepreneur when the projects themselves face challenges.
When I was launching my organic intimate products business, I made a very bad call. I spent every last dollar I had in the business bank account, and frankly in my own bank account, on an inventory of flushable wipes with coconut oil, from an untested, untrustworthy supplier. When the product arrived, the logo wasn’t even printed correctly on the package, the product clogged toilets, and the wipes smelled like all the chemicals I had expressly forbidden. I sat in my garage looking at this pile of terrible wipes with tears of frustration and anger streaming down my face. It was so bad, I couldn’t even give them away.
And of course, soon thereafter, my parents asked me when I planned to get a real job. I think most entrepreneurs are asked that question at some point.
I had raised a fair amount of money from a crowd-funding campaign and while I knew that my big idea was a complete failure, I wanted to do right by all my investors, so I retooled.
I came up with another version of the product and went into production “cottage industry” style. I’ve since shipped out hundreds of jars of an alternative product which turned out to be very well loved. I took the core ingredients from the first failed product, mixed them together, and re-imagined an all over body lube we called CAL (Coconut Allover Lube).
The product did very well and I still get requests for it today. Ultimately, competing in the intimacy business was not my true calling and I closed the business. That failure and subsequent modest success was just what I needed to remind myself that a defeat is just a door to another opportunity, a way to innovate, and a way to find a solution.
If you are noticing that you can’t keep a staff member, an assistant, or a key leader position filled, check yourself. You are doing something wrong.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Summers McKay: We had some fits and starts with The Optimist Daily when I first started working on the business relaunch. I won’t call it the funniest mistake, that might be the one that left me in tears amidst piles of bad sex-wipes, but one of the most important mistakes and lessons I learned was when I did not listen to my instincts and hired a vendor that was too good to be true.
When we were relaunching the company website, we received bids from dozens of design companies and some were outrageously expensive. Our chief investor wasn’t sure about the high cost and I knew I needed to find something better. Then, a bid came in at 10% of the price of all the others. I knew there was no way that the vendor could pull it off, but made the mistake of sharing it with my investors. I thought it was entertaining — and admittedly, I didn’t feel I yet had the authority to just toss it to the round file. Like many entrepreneurs, I was neck deep in imposter syndrome.
You can guess what happened next…. Of course, that was the bid the investors encouraged me to try to make work. Why wouldn’t they want to save 90%?!?!
We lost about 9 weeks of productivity trying hard to make the less expensive vendor work and ended up with a system that needed more repair than the one we had left. It was a huge frustration. Frankly, our investors looked to me as the responsible party for the decision. When you are the CEO, the buck stops with you. Hindsight is 20|20 but I know now that not following my instincts is often a risk. I like to remind entrepreneurs to lead with instinct supported by data and consider both with equal measure.
Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Establish a clear Vision, Mission and Purpose
In order to return every day to the wheel of entrepreneurship, you need some anchors both personally and for your company. Start by crafting your Vision (what the future looks like if you accomplish your goals), your Mission (how you will execute those goals), and Purpose (why you are on this journey).
Take time to develop them for yourself as a leader and an individual, then work with your team to build the company statements.
- Company Culture Is Essential — Employees and Customers both matter most
The old notion of “the customer is always right” at the risk of employees and profitability is one that we have to abandon when we are building sustainable, expansive, great companies. We have to turn our focus inward to ensure that the employees and stakeholders are in alignment with the goals and work, and are inspired by their daily experiences. We have to ensure that our businesses do not sacrifice culture for profits. They can and should work in tandem. When you look at company culture, the way you treat your customers should match the way you treat your employees. In today’s environment, employee loyalty and longevity is one of the biggest assets. I take every single one of my team members seriously, take the time to listen to their needs, and regularly check in on how they are feeling about the work they are doing. People matter.
If you are noticing that you can’t keep a staff member, an assistant, or a key leader position filled, check yourself. You are doing something wrong.
- Hard conversations lead to thoughtful solutions
I make a list each week of what the tough conversations I know I will have and then I jot down potential ways they can further our goals. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint — and you will have really challenging conversations with your investors and stakeholders along the way. Learning how to deliver challenging news: not so great financial reports, tech and operations failures, or customer dissatisfaction is imperative. Managing emotions and focusing on the solution mindset is a well-learned skill. Remember, the tough conversations are where thoughtful solutions can blossom.
- Integrity is Imperative
This touches on the points above. As a leader, you must give your team the opportunity for 100% transparency, and honesty as well as practicing it yourself. By leading with integrity and presenting a calm forum for collaborators, you will get the very best work out of people and the most out of your relationships. Integrity as a leader leads to increased productivity for the team. They know they can count on you and therefore can count on their contributions and concerns to matter. We work really hard at The Optimist Daily to eradicate the archaic CYA (cover your ass) culture of days gone by. Instead, we allow for what I call Outstanding Accountability. Everyone has ultimate ownership of their tasks, are responsible for exception and meticulous completion, and if anything gets in the way of that, they can put the breaks on the entire team for a course correction. When mistakes happen, when bad news must be delivered, when something has gone wrong — integrity allows for improvements!
- Remember, the goal is not the path
A lot of entrepreneurs and leaders get stuck in the day-to-day of the path they first choose. There are obstacles and they work incredibly hard to get through them, but sometimes the best way to get through them — is to simply go around them. Choose a new path.
At The Optimist Daily, we found ourselves in an interesting situation during this recent election cycle. Our primary channel of marketing was simply cut off. Facebook, which counted for 90% of our marketing budget, would not run our ads. With our marketing outlet cut off, our business Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) looked terrible! Instead of trying to work with Facebook to get our ads turned back on, we looked at other ways to generate leads, reach new readers, and convert the readers we had. While we won’t likely go entire months without spending our marketing budget again, in the month where it was cut off, we actually delivered equivalent results for the month on KPIs that mattered more towards our goal then our path.
Authentic, meaningful, and measurable impact is essential for business success.
Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Summers McKay: Fundamentally, a business without a purpose, a higher vision, or a “do good do well” social impact directive will never be a great company. The machinations of industry are what they are. You can run a perfectly fine business without a greater vision, but you will never be counted as one of the change makers, thought leaders, or the world’s most meaningful contributors. An authentic, meaningful, and measurable impact is essential for a business to achieve out of this world success..
From a sheer statistical perspective, the research 100% supports the idea that longevity, loyalty, and capacity for high growth is greatly enhanced by mission driven companies. This goes back to the notion that the employees, customers, and stakeholders all play an essential role in success. The intrinsic, emotional connection that people feel with the places they earn and the places they spend their dollars is as valuable as the extrinsic benefits they get from the products themselves.
While the Millennial generation is often stereotyped as the generation that most demands this intrinsic value from their employers and the brands they buy, at The Optimist Daily we are honored to see this preference is not isolated to those born from 1980–2000. In our experience, our most avid supporters, readers, and sharers of the Optimist Daily’s solutions based journalism span all ages. I think businesses can’t count out the expectation that Boomers, GenXers, Linksters and beyond also demand a higher purpose with their purchasing power.
Now, let me be clear — you MUST deliver exceptionally on both the mission and the product. A half hearted effort on either side will quickly alienate your customers and employees. You can’t slap a meaningful mission on a sub-par product, or a half assed mission on an exceptional product and expect people to buy in. Authentic, meaningful, and measurable impact is essential for business success.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Summers McKay: When a company is desperate for a sale, the customers can sense it. When they are getting hammered with repeated “on sale now” messaging, customers tire of the upsell and tune out. I’ve seen this happen many times in online marketing efforts. However, it’s a fine line…. Because if you never ask for the sale, you’ll never get it.
What we use at The Optimist Daily to drive conversions is a combination of audience engagement and targeted asks for our readers who are our most loyal. We let the data talk to us and we watch behavior. We recently launched a “pay reminder” — a popup — asking our readers to contribute. We intend for The Optimist Daily to remain free and in order to do that, we need for those readers who share our mission and also have the means, to support us with paid subscriptions! We’ve watched user interaction with the pay-reminder and watched the demand flow as we really value a positive reader experience. We’ve tweaked our messaging in response to behavior. I would recommend any company be meticulous in listening and watching in order to increase conversion. More “asks” don’t always mean better sales. Better asks deliver better sales.
Authenticity is the most valuable asset for any brand. Summers McKay
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Summers McKay: Authenticity is the most valuable asset for any brand. Return to those core company values and ensure the products, the team members, and the customer experience all align. Prioritization of the relationship with all stakeholders increases trust in any brand and will extend and improve customer engagement.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Summers McKay: Check out TheOptimistDaily.com and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook. Stop the Doom Scrolling and head to TOD for inspiration, solutions, and community of positive like minded thinkers. Sign up for a free subscription to our daily newsletter and receive 5 positive solutions in your in-box every morning, and if you’re feeling it — join our community of Optimist Daily Emissaries and support reader-funded journalism here.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!