Built on a love of vintage garb and thrift shopping, Susan Gregg Koger started online clothing and accessories retailer ModCloth in her first year of university. With help from then-boyfriend (now husband) Eric, the company used Susan's dorm room as its headquarters.
Seven years later, ModCloth employs 350 people and has a thriving community of "ModLovers" who choose (and even create) some of the designs sold on the site. Susan and Eric remain very hands-on — she scopes out independent designers as Chief Creative Office, and he runs the business-side of things as CEO. We caught up with the busy duo to chat about their favourite apps, gadgets, playlists and more.
Names: Eric Koger and Susan Gregg Koger Occupation: Eric: Founder & CEO, ModCloth; Susan: Founder & Chief Creative Officer, ModCloth Location: San Francisco, CA Current computers: Eric: 15-inch MacBook Pro Retina; Susan: MacBook Air Current mobile devices: iPhone 5 One word that best describes how I work: Eric: Thoughtfully; Susan: Visually
What's apps/tools/software can't you live without?
Eric: I've tried all kinds of tools over the years, and I'm constantly looking for ways to improve. The nerdiest hack I use now is probably my keyboard layout. I use Colemak, which means I can type much faster. Probably my favourite aspect of this layout is that the caps lock key, which is one of the least useful keys on the keyboard, is now a backspace. This means I can use both left and right hands to backspace.
I use Asana for project management. I love Gmail and its keyboard shortcuts — I wouldn't use any other email now because of that. I'm big a fan of Google Apps in general for organisations. My advice to anyone who uses Gmail professionally: turn on keyboard shortcuts and memorize them.I also use Freeplane — a glorious, free, customisable, mindmapping software. I love mind maps in general.
Susan: I'm obsessed with Evernote — it helps me keep track of my professional and personal to-do list. Recently we've been using Asana, which Eric loves. He uses it to organise both personal and business projects. I get most of my inspiration from being in the world and shopping vintage — for that, my iPhone is indispensable. I see something I like and I take a picture of it and put in Evernote. That camera is so handy. I take up to 15 pictures a day, every day. My camera roll is insane. I use Instagram a lot — it's the social platform I'm the most active on. It comes back to the fact that I love to take pictures of things that are inspiring me. I'm loving this new wave of apps and services that allow you to create something beautiful quickly and with low or no overhead. I'm very visual, and I like having a physical representation of my inspirations and interests. (Check out Susan's Instagram photos here.)
Pinterest is a really useful tool for creative types. I can keep my finger on what's inspiring people and what people are loving. When I'm looking at runway shows, I'll pin my favourite looks from the shows and it becomes easy for me to visually see the trends I'm really responding to that season. While Pinterest is great for stuff I'm finding as I'm reading blogs, I do really respond well to printing out images and pinning them on a big board in person. I am loving vintage magazines right now — I'm collecting vintage National Geographics. They have amazing colours and texture, particularly from the '50s and '60s. Sadly, they tend to smell bad and make my allergies go crazy. I can't live without setting aside time to make visual, real-world combinations of what's inspiring me. (Pictured at right: Susan reviewing designs.)
What's your best time-saving trick/life hack?
Eric: I have a bunch of them, actually. David Allen's Getting Things Done, as a framework, makes sense for me. The way each person applies it is personal. No matter how you actually implement it, the main concept is crucial: getting everything out of your head so it stops distracting your mind. It is a principle I live by.
I use the Google Calendar's Speedy Meetings. It automatically cuts 30 minute meetings by five minutes and hour-long meetings by 10, so I don't have to figure out how to teleport to my next meeting to make it on time.
I separate queuing work from doing work. When I get up in the morning I try to work on my important but not necessarily urgent work, [like] writing, planning complex communications, or creating mind maps on complex topics. Then I can tackle task-oriented work throughout the day.
I used to use Evernote to take meeting notes, but I've been reading about how having a laptop screen in front of you in meetings undermines listening and connecting with the people you're with, so I've been using pen and paper recently to be more present. However, I do use Evernote for myself. I'm the chef in our family, [so I] keep recipes and notes in Evernote. I also keep a journal in Evernote.I think it's important to talk to yourself. You're considered insane if you vocalise your inner dialogue too much, but if you type it out, you're considered smart, and you have a reference.
Susan: One hack has been finding someone I really trust to help me manage everything. My personal executive assistant Lauren has worked with me for two years now. She's in my email prioritizing everything for me, so I know what the top five things are that have to be done. It takes lots of time and trust to get to the point where you can have someone doing that, but when you travel as much as I do and have as much on your plate, it's really key.
Between Eric and I, we're both executives at the same company and neither one of us has much time to really run the household, so we outsource duties like taking care of the dogs. Working as much as we do, you have to take a look at what only you can do, and find other people to help where you can.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
Eric: I use Asana in combination with the Action Notebook from Behance for my face-to-face meetings. I used to be all digital, but in addition to being more present in meetings now, I've discovered there's another advantage to written notes. You can more easily go back in time to better see the context around tasks based on the notes from the meeting they came from, even after they get prioritised in my Asana system.I'm really enjoying having that diary of discussions and next actions.
Susan: My to-do list goes between my email and my Evernote. I have a system that helps me keep things straight. For example, I keep separate notebooks for people I meet with regularly, and I have a tagging system for people I don't. That way I can keep straight everything I'm delegating and collaborating on throughout the company. My working style is that I don't shy away from random 1 AM-I-just-thought-of-this-here's-an-email management.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without?
Eric: My Shure headphones, which help me block out the world when I need to focus.
Susan: It used to be my digital camera, but now my iPhone camera is so good I don't need to carry more than that. I have an iPad as well that I use at home. I want to understand how people use mobile and how our customer would shop on her tablet. I read on the the Kindle, which is the best e-reader. It's so light and you can read it in direct sunlight. I love to read, and I travel all the time. It's always in the travel bag.
What's your workspace like?
Eric: I have a standing desk and couch at the office, and an adjustable desk at home. When I'm doing really mentally intensive work I end up sitting. When it's the end of the day, when I'm zipping through tasks like getting to inbox zero and queuing up for next day, I find myself standing. In general, rapid work I do standing up, and writing or strategy work I'll do sitting down.
Susan: I travel a lot. Every week I'm spending time in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, and I go to Pittsburgh every six weeks or so. I'm also very hands-on in the buying process, so I'm on the road, meeting with designers. I depend on my phone to keep me connected and organised. When I'm in the office, I prefer to spend time collaborating with my team versus spending time at my desk. I spend lots of time in meeting rooms with myMacBook Air in tote.
I have a giant physical board of inspiration behind my desk, and I often have a pug on my lap on and off throughout the day. The space in front of my desk is changing constantly with visual inspiration. Right now I have vintage paper dolls from the sixties that I think are cute.
I have a few big boards I use for inspiration and work. One is just random stuff that I find inspiring — images, momentos, sweet letters customers have written.One is all customers. We can visually see our customer and different ways she's wearing our clothing, making it a part of her life. I went through and picked my favourite images of girls wearing Modcloth — on their wedding day, for example, or celebrities like Zooey Deschanel on the set of New Girl wearing a ModCloth dress. Each of them has equal importance.
Pictured above: Eric (R) and Susan's (L) iPhone homescreens.
What do you listen to while you work?
Eric: I listen to lyricless music with noise cancelling headphones while I work. I have a Pandora station set up for just this purpose, and I also have some playlists in iTunes. This helps me get into a flow without being distracted by outside noise or lyrics.
Susan: We have an open floor plan, so headphones are important. Sometimes I just have them on without music. When I'm doing research or creative work, I put on one of the albums that I've heard a million times before so I can zone out. It puts me in a better mood. I listen to lots of Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, Tegan and Sarah, andJónsi.
What's your sleep routine like?
Eric: I strive to go to bed at 11pm and get up at 6.30am. Those are my good days. On a bad day, I get to bed by midnight and am up by 7.30am. I'm a big believer in at least seven hours of sleep.
Susan: I've generally been someone who can get more done at night, but Eric prefers the morning, so I've been trying to be an early morning riser. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep, particularly when I've been at the market — I get really tired when I've been looking at merchandise all day. If I don't get enough sleep, I'm not on my game and I don't have my intuition. Right now I'm doing an 11.30pm to 7.30am schedule, ideally.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? What's your secret?
Eric: I roast an excellent chicken. The secret is in my brine — it provides amazing flavour and juiciness.
Susan: It seems hard to believe, but I can remember almost every piece of clothing I've ever seen. I didn't realise it was something unique until I started ModCloth and [realized] that not everyone could remember what they wore last week. On Tuesday. Or last year. This ability helps me as I go into the market and source items for the site or decide what we should develop, because I've seen so much and can remember so much. I can tell what our customers will perceive as new and different. I've learned to trust my instinct — when I see something that blows me away, I know it's something new, and can make connections very quickly. I got my 10 thousand hours of looking at clothing in early.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Eric: Figure out your genius-level activities, hire/delegate everything else. Courtesy of Mike Maples Jr, an investor in ModCloth.
Susan: Don't apologise for your age — something our lawyer told us as we were raising our first round of venture finance. We were young and so many potential investors wanted to include dubious terms about "adult supervision." I'm not the youngest anymore by any means, but I've internalized that mantra that anyone who wants to work with us needs to take us at face value.
We've asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we'll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.