Gwyneth Paltrow is nothing like you think she is. Gwyneth Paltrow is exactly who you think she is. In the end, none of this fucking matters, because she has never been anyone but herself. Thank God, because here's who Gwyneth is to me: a vital friend, generous with her knowledge and passions. An ass-kicking cook, but you already know that if you follow me — or anyone else — on Instagram, because her recipes are obsessively tagged. An engaged mother who sees the humor and beauty in child-rearing. And a determined businesswoman who demands that no female question her own value in the marketplace.
On that last note, Gwyneth has been our trusted adviser from day one. She took my and Lena's calls day and night to counsel us on foreign concepts like ad sales and back end. She huddled with us in the corners of parties to firmly (like, using a lot of profanity) explain to us what retaining ownership of your own company means, both practically and on a bigger scale. She's been in the newsletter business for eight years, and she imparted every bit of hard-earned wisdom to us as often as we asked. She's also a goddamned delight.
We are so excited to feature her in our entrepreneurship issue because she is the definition of a strong woman running her shit. As she once said to me, she left a perfectly good day job to start Goop. And some days she still wonders why. Which is, of course, her prerogative. And ours is to be so grateful that she did.
Below, Lena and I talked to Gwyneth about the nuts and bolts of starting a business from your kitchen, how to scale up while still keeping your authentic voice, and, of course, steaming your vagina.
Jenni Konner: You told us you sent the first Goop email from your kitchen in London. How did you describe Goop? If someone said, "What is this thing in my inbox?," how would you have explained it then?
GP: I don't know why I started it. There's an aspect of my life where I just follow these threads. I've always been that person for my friends, where they ask me, "I have a guy coming over for dinner. How do I roast a chicken?" Or, "Where do I get a wax below 14th Street?" Or, "Where do I get a cool poster?" I had this incredibly fortunate life where I was getting to travel and work all over the world. I always had notebooks where I'd jot down, like, where's the best pizza? I'm in Naples, let me go try them all. So I had all of this information, and it was originally going to be a tiny database for my friends so they would stop fucking calling me.
Then, some part of me thought maybe there are other people in the world who want answers to the same questions that I want and that my friends want. Then it organically turned into Goop.
I think I would have been absolutely stumped if you asked me "Why are you doing this?" in 2008. I wouldn't have been able to tell you why, and there have been many times over the years that I've been doing that, that I'm like, "Why am I doing this? This is totally excruciating and unrewarding, and really painful, and everyone hates it and hates me."
JK: How many people did you start with?
GP: Just me.
JK: Just you, in your kitchen, writing an email.
GP: Yes, and making the recipes and writing them down and sending them out.
JK: How did it grow?
GP: Very quickly I had a lot of subscribers, and I had a very engaged group of subscribers. I was going along, and then I started getting feedback that I was really changing the financials for companies that I was recommending on the site and having a significant impact on their business. The word really started to get out.
I remember a few people approaching me: "We really love what you are doing. What are you going to do with it?" There's one woman, her name is Juliet de Baubigny, and she's a partner at a VC [venture-capital] firm in Silicon Valley called Kleiner Perkins. I was at Elizabeth Murdoch's house in London for some garden party, with all these world leaders and shit there, and this woman came up to me and she said, "I really love Goop," I didn't even know what a VC was at that point. I had never heard of Kleiner Perkins.
She said, "I really love what you're doing, this is what I do, and what are you going to do with it? There's really something here." I was like, "I really don't know. I never really thought about it." She said, "You really should start to think about it." She became a guardian angel and started to push me gently toward not necessarily monetization, but thinking about what could it possibly be.
She introduced me to my first CEO, Seb Bishop. He was very excited about the possibility. It was right at the time where there were all these models like Shoe Dazzle, and all the flash-sales sites were happening, so there was a lot of thought about, We could do this, we could do this, we could do this, and I just thought, No. That's not what this is. I recognized early, before I even knew that it could be a viable business at all, that I had trust. I had the trust of my readers, and I had unheard-of open rates.
LD: I wonder how you think about growing — scaling up — while still maintaining that trust with your readers. How do you make sure that everything you're doing feels organic to you and feels organic to them?
GP: For me, it was a nonnegotiable part of the thing. For example, when we started taking advertising, there were a lot of brands that I turned down. It just doesn't feel right for us, so I'd rather not have the money than have somebody click on it and be like, "Why the hell is this on here? This feels terrible." We try to do a lot of native advertising, so we're designing it, it's in the look, it's in the feel. If we're choosing a brand that we love, I put things on there that I love or use anyway, so that's a big part of it.
JK: Do you have big regrets? You're not a very regret-y person, but is there something, about which you say, "Oh, I wish I did that slightly differently. I wish I had waited longer on that." Do you have any of those?
GP: When I started, I was so earnest. Sometimes I'll see an early incarnation of a page, and I'll read something I wrote, and I'm just like, "Oh my God." I had to learn as I went. You don't appeal to as broad of a range of people when you're that earnest. You have to be a little bit more savvy about how you communicate. It doesn't mean that I'm not still me, but ...
JK: I would say you have an earnestness, but you actually also have a great sense of humor. That's what you were leaving out. The full scope of you.
GP: Right. Exactly. Sometimes that, I'm like, "Oh. I wish I had gotten that piece of it sooner." In a way, I wish that I had more infrastructure sooner, because now I'm eight years in, but I'm really only two years into real monetization of the site, and it's so much fun, and I'm learning so much, and I'm so engaged in what I'm doing. I wish that it hadn't taken me so long to be brave enough to say, "Hey. Let's make this a business."
LD: What it was like for you to go out and pitch the company? It's scary to bet on yourself; it's also scary to ask for money and to ask other people to bet on you. How did you overcome that fear, if you ever had it?
GP: I definitely had it. I'm not that person, intrinsically. I don't like to ask for help, ever. Luckily, by the time I went to raise my little seed round, it was from this incredible group of women. They already knew what I was doing and they loved it, so it wasn't like I was cold-calling like, "I have an idea." Then there's no way.
LD: Something we've talked and thought about a lot, is the way men are encouraged to expand beyond their careers. Ashton Kutcher was on That '70s Show and now he gets to start 57,000 restaurants and be an investor in Twitter and no one says anything. And you're this Oscar-winning person who's been told, "Who told you that you could do this?" I wonder if you've experienced this sort of misogyny as an entrepreneur.
GP: The "stay in your own lane" vibe.
LD: It's constant.
JK: Even just with projects, people say, "Well, how are you going to do a TV show and a movie and Lenny and ..." I just don't think anyone's asking J.J. Abrams that.
GP: Of course they're not. They're not asking Ryan Murphy that, and he has more irons in the fire than anyone. Everybody wants you in the caricature of you if you're a woman. You're supposed to be this and I'm supposed to be that. If you start to cast that off, it makes people very uncomfortable, especially if they're projecting a lot onto you and they identify with you.
It's threatening to men to have women who are capable of doing so many things and doing them well. I don't think it's consciously threatening and I don't think it's all men, but it really challenges the status quo and how people relate to us. Because I was the first one of this generation to do this kind of thing, I got a lot of shit for it. I sort of welcomed it. Now I'm like, this is why I'm on earth. This is part of my journey, and I'm here to be this person, and that's OK.
I was genuinely surprised at the vitriol. I mean, honestly, I sent this nothing issue from my kitchen that had a recipe and two things in it, or maybe it was just a recipe. I don't even remember. It had nothing in it, and the New York Times wrote maybe a four-page article. It's unbelievable. The response was totally bananas.
LD: And totally different than the response you were getting from your readers, which was one of "Thank you for sharing with me. Thank you for being open." Have you ever let any public reaction to what Goop is shape what Goop became?
JK: Positive or negative.
GP: Not really. There's certain things, I've just gotten savvier as I go, so now if I'm writing an article about someone steaming their vagina, I'm like, "This is going to be a thing." It's fun.
LD: Honestly, my first reaction was like, "I can't wait to steam my vagina."
JK: We need the ghosts of old lovers to leave us.
GP: Originally it would take me by surprise so much when we would publish something and there was a huge reaction to it. I was so perplexed by it a lot of the time. Now, it's pattern recognition. I can tell you, for the most part, what people are going to think about X, Y, and Z.
It's strange to also make that transition from "Oh no, oh no" to "I don't fucking care." I'm very unapologetic about it. I really believe in what I'm doing, and I really love what we're doing, and I love the product we sell. I think it behooves people sometimes to make assumptions or whatever, but we're really just trying to provide the best product and information.
JK: In your criminal mind, what does Goop become five years down the road?
GP: In my criminal mind, I want to continue to get better and better at what it is we're doing, which is making a really exciting product that, I hope, will slightly disrupt the direct-to-consumer model that exists now, which is on more of a mass scale, with product that is more aspirational but coming to the customer at a direct-to-consumer price point.
I always want to curate other stuff and I'm hoping that we'll always be able to do that, and that the voice will be very cohesive. I would like to see growth in all areas. I really hope that, whether it's in how many subscribers we have, or our ad-sales business, that year after year, are able to realize our vision: We want to make every choice count. We want to be the most trusted source on the web for us and our friends, and our friends' friends, and concentric circles out.
Again, I think the business will dictate to us what direction it's going to go in. Like, are we going to continue to grow in each vertical across all the verticals? Or in ten years are we only going to be a beauty business? Who knows? My hope is that we are a truly modern lifestyle brand and that nobody remembers that I started it.
Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner are the co-founders of Lenny and are steaming their vaginas right now.