Piera Gelardi is the co-founder and executive creative director of Refinery29, an online fashion and lifestyle magazine with 25 million global readers.
When she started the company in 2005, her resume included one internship and one job (plus a babysitting gig in college). She jokingly equates that to no work experience but the truth is, Piera has been doing creative work her entire life.
In the 11 years since she started the bootstrapped company, Piera has helped grow Refinery29 from four employees to 400, and she picked up some invaluable wisdom about life and work along the way.
“My motto is ‘forever forward’ and it’s about putting that work in," Piera says. "Being a work in progress and doing the work to actually progress.”
She credits her parents for inspiring that mentality. Piera grew up watching her family work hard to constantly grow both personally and professionally, and they instilled that value in her.
“I actually hate the expression ‘work smart not hard' because to me in life you really have to work really fucking hard. You have to work hard every day.”
While working smart always helps, there is just no way around working hard. It’s still one of the most underestimated facts of most successful careers. You gotta put the work in. You have to work your ass off.
2. Be silly in brainstorms
Piera says her previous job taught her the importance of laughter and fun in the brainstorming process.
“We would do these crazy brainstorms and throw out the stupidest shit and laugh our asses off and then come up with something really good,” she says. “That’s something that totally stuck with me. When we have brainstorms [at Refinery29] I make people shake it out. I try to throw out the stupidest things first so they feel it’s OK to be silly, because I do think that opens you up creatively to have ideas and to connect things non-linearly.”
Brainstorm meetings are usually the place where good ideas go to die. Especially crazy & seemingly stupid ideas are quick to be shut down by other people around you. Maintaining a “silly” attitude in brainstorms helps you to come up with with dozens of ideas first, and then evaluate them later.
3. Work with people who are not like you
Before Refinery29, Piera and a few friends tried to launch a print magazine. It failed for a few reasons — one being that everyone working on it had the same background and skill set.
“It didn’t take off, but I learned a lot from the failure of it. One of the biggest things I learned was the need, when you start something, to work with people with diverse skill sets from you.”
People with a different skill set or personality bring new experiences and perspectives to the table. Hiring people who’re just like you often adds more friction than it helps. Hire people different & maybe even smarter than you.
4. Your audience will tell you what to do
“One of the biggest reasons that we’ve grown and been successful is that we’ve always listened to our audience,” Piera says. “So that’s always been part of the shifts and the growth that we make in terms of our content. Seeing what our audience is interested in and what they are looking for.”
When Piera and her co-founders first founded Refinery29, they created unisex content that focused on independent designers and boutiques. But that changed.
“As we grew we started to see the audience was skewing much more women. We felt that we needed to focus in order to grow, so we decided to focus more on women’s content.”
Listening to your audience doesn’t mean you’re selling out. Refinery29 stays true to its heart for independent fashion and maintains a significant male audience, but listening to its main audience has allowed the magazine to grow beyond that.
5. It’s OK to be vulnerable
Piera calls it her “infamous Instagram post.” She shared a post expressing her anxiety about her job and admitted she thinks about quitting every day. Of course it was a controversial post and made an impact.
“It broke something open,” Piera says. “It also connected me to a lot of people in an interesting way. And then when I talked to the team about it, a lot of people came to me afterward and were really honest about their own struggles, but in a way that was very productive.”
Being vulnerable is scary, but it helps you grow as a person and opens the opportunity for others around you to do the same.
6. You don’t always need a plan
There’s a difference between having a master plan and a healthy confidence in your abilities. Plans can fail, especially in today’s fast-paced world. The ability to adjust quickly is what makes you succeed.
“I never have a master plan,” Piera says. “I’m putting one foot in front of the other.”
She never expected Refinery29 to see the success it has, but she knows she has what it takes to keep it moving forward.
“I’m very intuitive. I think I could close my eyes and walk in somewhat the right direction. It’s like an internal compass. But I don’t have like a master plan, ever.”
I hope you enjoyed this article and you can apply some of these six lessons from Piera to your everyday as well.