Maria Thomas

The 24 souls in Hungry Academy were joined by rougly 60 of our LivingSocial colleagues for an enlightening talk by Maria Thomas on her experiences working at Amazon, directing digital media at NPR, and her time as CEO of Etsy. For the faithful supporters and followers of Hungry Academy, here are a few of the gems Maria shared.

At the core of Amazon’s product is a single, core word: customer. Maria’s presentation emphasized Amazon’s goal of creating “the world’s most customer-centric company” and the way they do it: building products focused on the customer. Customers are so important at Amazon that at Jeff Bezos’ insistance a chair is left empty in every meeting, to represent the customers who cannot be there in person yet whose needs need to be considered in every business decision. She also highlighted how Amazon focused on long-term investments that took customer well being into account, rather than giving in to the pressure for short-term results.

At NPR, Maria’s focus was to build the digital media unit and expand the NPR brand across the digital landscape. It was a new frontier for the formerly b2b company. The company became a pioneer in the digital space under Maria’s guidance, taking what had been a purely audio brand and translating it to visual and digital form. Her mission was to maintain what was termed the “NPR-ness” of the customer’s experience in new mediums. As Maria explained it: you know what the magic of your brand is. Preserve that “ness” for every user, no matter how they interact with your product.

She also stressed how at NPR the team used iterative testing to observe how users used their products - and that testing could be as simple as running down to Starbucks and asking a few people to try it out on a laptop.

Maria’s time as CEO of Etsy came during an evolutionary period in the company’s life. She focused on using metrics to understand how users interact with the product. Interestingly, as a market for hand-crafted goods, Etsy did not have the standard conversion funnel of a traditional e-commerce site. Customers came to Etsy to browse beautiful, hand-crafted goods - much as they might browse similar items in a brick and mortar craft fair. While conversion was important, the experience needed to preserve the desire for entertainment that drove many customers to the site. It was another lession in listening to and understanding your customers and the importance of their needs.

As someone rather succinctly put it, “Without customers, there’s no business.”