Member Profile :: Melissa Massello
These days I am having lots of coffee meetings with potential members, companies looking to host events at The Refinery and groups looking to collaborate. So many dirty chai's I can just barely turn off at night! This 24/7 collaboration speed dating I've been going through is so exhilarating because I get to meet some one the most incredible, truly inspirational people in Austin.
I'm excited to introduce our newest blog series highlighting the members of The Refinery, starting with Malissa Massello - A creative, entrepreneurial woman with quite the resume! Cannot wait to work alongside this beauty!
1. What brought you to Austin, Texas? How long have you lived here? What’s your favorite part about the city?
My husband and I are native Bostonians, but we moved to Austin in 2013 in search of better quality of life. (I actually wrote about our decision in depth for The Boston Globe.) The three things I love best about Austin are the inclusivity and collaborative spirit of the creative community, across genres, and how open everyone is -- there are no walls put up around ideas or definitions of "on-brand" collaborators -- the true spirit of exploration is alive and well here. Maybe it's that leftover pioneer town vibe. And I love that we can be outside every day nearly 10 months of the year here -- hiking, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding with our dogs, it's good for mind, body, and soul. We're huge softies for animals, too, and even though I didn't know how big the "no kill" community was before moving here, Austin immediately felt like home because of it -- forget live music for a sec, Austin is The Rescue Dog Capital of the World(™). The dog-friendly, family-friendly lifestyle here is just amazing. Just the overall work/life balance -- Austinites don't just talk about it, they actually execute on it and make it habit, and it's contagious. (Like, eat queso and drink all night at a live concert, but still get up for a run around Town Lake and hit Juiceland before work, repeat.)
2. Tell us about your writing background - What projects you are currently working on? Where can we find your work?
I went to journalism school at the University of New Hampshire, and have been a published reporter and writer since my sophomore year -- starting first at daily newspapers and then when I lost my newspaper job as the economy went sideways after September 11th. I scrambled to take any writing-related job I could get and went back to grad school for magazine publishing at Emerson College, landing at a quirky little textbook company for a hot minute, run out of the upstairs of the publisher's home in a sleepy, preppy little suburb on the North Shore of Massachusetts. There were only five employees, including me, but we published more than two dozen new titles per year. It was my first real startup experience, and it led me back home to Boston, where I worked at 11 early-stage startups in 10 years, including two that I co-founded. My first company was my online magazine, Shoestring, which I published for 8 years (and is now archived as a Wordpress blog for posterity). At our peak, we had a staff of 41 contributors all over the country and reached over 250,000 unique readers every month all over the world, but in 2009 the publishing industry was having a real identity crisis and I quickly realized we had to embrace blogging and bloggers and we had to diversify our revenue streams away from just the traditional models of advertising, advertorial/sponsored content, syndication, and lead generation. So in an effort to actually make money from the high-quality content we were publishing (by friends and colleagues who were also staffers at Martha Stewart/Blueprint, Glamour, Readymade, Cosmopolitan, HuffPo, and other household names), we started a series of ticketed offline events using our collective expertise to connect with readers and provide them with creative, budget-friendly resources and new skills. One of those first events, our designer clothing swap in February 2010, had more than 300 people show up in the middle of a blizzard (we were expecting 75, tops), so we knew we were on to something big. That night, my event partner, Amy Lynn Chase, and I started a sister company called The Swapaholics, and it just skyrocketed from there -- taking us all over the country to host more than three dozen designer clothing swaps in two years, at SXSW (Texas Style Council!), New York Fashion Week, the Oscars, and more, partnering with brands like Lulu's and Modcloth, wineries and breweries, and hundreds of small, female-owned businesses around the country -- and press galore, even a huge feature on Nightline News. We were acquired less than a year later by another Boston-based startup called Swap.com, and when they then turned around and sold the company again in 2012, I was dealing with serious burnout and major health problems from burning the candle at both ends for more than a decade, so I went back to my roots as a journalist -- starting a column for The Boston Globe all about DIYs and the Maker Movement, which was just starting to take off at the time. In addition to the Globe, I write daily for Apartment Therapy, and have also contributed to FastCompany, Bloomberg, TripAdvisor, Wine Enthusiast, Good Housekeeping, and hundreds of other smaller publications, both online and in print.
My portfolio site is still under construction, but a lot of my recent work is featured on Contently, on Bentley University's Center for Women in Business, and my author page at Apartment Therapy. My magazine, Shoestring, is now archived on Wordpress, too, with over 1,000 free articles on budget living and self-reliance. ;)
3. What were you doing before you dove into the freelance world? What made you decide to make a change?
Right after Swap.com sold and Amy and I were suddenly left on our own again, I took a job as interim CEO of a new early stage startup called Krash and realized within three months that I was setting myself up to fail -- I was really sick, with a lot of health problems I later learned were the result of not just burnout but years of neglecting my body and not listening to its red flags. I had developed two dozen food allergies and soy-allergy-related Hashimoto's Disease, which basically made me feel like an 80-year-old woman when I woke up every day, stiff and bloated and nearly senile with mental fog and energy loss. Over the past 5 years I've cut way back on work and am "simply" freelancing -- something I'm privileged to be able to do because I paid my dues as a working writer at a high level (and low pay) over 20 years -- and am trying to learn how to put myself and health and wellness first for the first time since I was a teenager. Maybe there's a new business opportunity down the line when I finally figure this all out, who knows. It's a massive crisis in our culture, not just for me but for millions of people dealing with inflammation caused by food sensitivities and stress. I'm hoping to start a podcast at some point later this year to infuse some humor and #reallife into the struggle just to feed yourself every damn day in this postmodern era, as many of us do.
4. Describe your favorite project you have ever worked on - What did you love about it?
Oh gosh, this is a hard one. I'm going to have to swap adjectives here, and say instead of "favorite" what's the "most important" project I've ever worked on, because without it I wouldn't be where I am -- who I am. In 2006, I left my job as editorial director at a fashion startup (now RueLaLa) to join a team of 10 people trying to disrupt the entire way that we find people and providers to care for our family members -- now called Care.com. As the 11th employee, I worked directly under founder and CEO Sheila Lirio Marcelo, who is brilliant and exacting and pushed us all to squeeze every ounce of capability, creativity, and high-achievement out of every day in order to meet our aggressive goals as a team. Even at the time, working 18-hour days week in and week out, sometimes comparing her to "Dragon Lady" Anna Wintour (sorry Sheila!), I could see that her methods were the definition of how to actually achieve high growth and become a leader in the field and a success story as a company -- a no-nonsense, no-coddling, organized, highly transparent, and highly accountable way of doing business and working as a team, pushing each other to be more productive and higher-functioning both at work and in our personal goals, which then made us stronger together. I feel extraordinarily lucky to count Sheila as a mentor, and an early advisor to my companies, and wouldn't be the champion for women in business that I am today without my experiences working on Care.com with her (and all of the other highly talented female executives and wonderfully inclusive and brilliant men she recruited), from the very beginnings of the alpha version of that website. Without pushing myself to rise to her challenge, I never would have had the confidence to go out on my own -- and without Sheila's bulldog recruitment, not to mention her advocacy and support for me staying on as long as I could before the magazine really took off -- I never would have been a success at it, or been able to pay it forward to the women I've hired, mentored, and advised in the years since. My two years at Care.com were my coming-of-age moment as a woman in business and an entrepreneur, so yeah, favorite career project in many ways.
5. Tell us about a project that challenged you. What did you learn from the experience?
Long before I became a journalist or entrepreneur, I first learned the discipline and dedication and passion that I bring to everything I do because I spent my adolescence as a competitive figure skater, going to pre-Olympic training for singles and winning a world gold medal with my team in 1992. After I retired from elite-level competition to go to college, I found that my life was becoming more and more unmoored -- then I met my friend and future co-captain Annie at a public skate session, where we were both trying to just get some exercise in between our course loads, and we decided to create the UNH Figure Skating Club. The entire experience was so humbling, challenging, and so character-building -- not to mention emotional -- that it's hard to find a lesson about adulting in my twenties that wasn't tied to UNH Synchro or my teammates in some way. Back then, collegiate skating was considered a joke by the rest of the skating world, and now there are ladies choosing UNH because of our skating program and their ability to get a degree without giving up on their dreams as a competitive athlete. The team invited Annie and me and some of our first-year teammates back to campus and onto the ice with them a few years ago to celebrate the 15th anniversary of UNH Skating, during their send-off for Nationals, and I still well up when I think about it. Even though I haven't been able to be as involved over the years as I would like, the whole experience taught me the importance and achievability of building and appreciating -- not controlling -- your legacy. While you're still young.
6. What is your favorite taco in Austin? Had to throw this in there...very important :)
The Heather at Tacodeli! But, as I mentioned, I have an ever-changing roster of food allergies and intolerances, so my new favorite is the Raw Pecan Meat tacos on jicama tortillas at Curcuma on the East Side. Healthy, absolutely delicious, and gluten-free vegan, which is a tall order -- even in Austin!
7. Who is someone you truly admire? How do they make you a better person or how do they fuel you to keep pushing forward?
My husband. It may be a cliched answer, but without him by my side over the last 14 years I never would have been able to accomplish a fraction of what I've done -- and neither one of us would have been able to grow and expand as human beings as much as we have without the other, and without our decision to move to Austin and have this adventure. We were both raised by strong single mothers and didn't have the highest respect for the institution of marriage, but found each other and gave it a go and though it's one of the most challenging things any human can ever do in life -- stay together and try to make each other happy despite the highs and lows of life's roller coaster -- it's also the most rewarding. Us against the world. Plus, he's the biggest self-designated feminist I know, with the most golden of hearts, not to mention hilarious and one of my best editors. People are just naturally drawn to him, and he always sets them at ease, which are things I've always admired. I liggedy love you, boo.
8. What are some causes you are passionate about? Tell us about your love for Greyhounds and pups in general!
Oh man, where to start! I'm all in on empowering women (and compassionate, empathetic, equality-minded men), as I mentioned, and have always been a champion of the environment -- specifically protecting our parks and public spaces, our food chain and waterways, and our exposure to pollution and corruption from capitalistic greed. I'm also a crazy dog lady on a mission to end pet overpopulation and the senseless euthanization of millions of family-friendly dogs and cats every year in our shelters. Since moving to Austin, I've been a dedicated volunteer for sighthound rescue, and adopted both of my whippets from Greyhound Rescue Austin. Through working with Greyhound Pets of America Central Texas, I met and became fast friends with Catelyn Silapachai of The Distillery Market, and together we co-founded two grassroots campaigns to get more people out exercising with shelter dogs, 1dog1hour, and fostering rescue dogs, This Foster Life, the latter with three other amazing doggie foster mamas here in town. My future Refinery colleagues will no doubt be getting recruited to embrace both in their lives. :)
A lesson for anyone looking to get more involved, though, from the trenches: One of the things about being a passionate person, I've learned the hard way as I stare 40 in the face, is that you have to be very careful and intentional about where you direct your passion -- because you'll go all in, give it 150%, and there are plenty of causes and projects out there that will just take and take and take until you have nothing left in the tank, even in the most benevolent of contexts, and many times you'll feel like you've just been spinning your wheels, your energy could be better spent -- working smarter rather than harder. Especially in volunteer work, it's easy to get sucked into the minutiae and politics and get distracted from the actual cause and solutions needed to solve the real problems, so it's important to regularly check yourself at the 30,000-foot view and make sure you're having the most impact with the unique skills, resources, and assets you brought to the table. In these high-panic times, it's easy to get stretched too thin or feel overwhelmed by all the causes that need our attention. Just as you would for your company or projects, focus on those that are closest to your heart and the talents and creativity you channel from the universe. If you do that, all of your efforts will flow more freely and you'll do more lasting good.
9. Describe your ideal work environment - What are the elements that really get your creative juices flowing??
Somewhere that's calming yet visually stimulating, with a great soundtrack, and a community that values -- as my friend Pei at The Paper + Craft Pantry always says -- "collaboration over competition." I'm through with the WeWorks of the world, where the tension (and agro-testosterone) is palpable and everyone is always stressed out, siloed in their headphones, practicing the art of one-up-manship and fostering the culture of busy instead of doing what coworking spaces were designed for: opening yourself up to synchronicity and serendipity, and making yourself available to collaborators for soundboarding on the regular. I do my best work when I'm surrounded by people that hustle yet stay humble, to borrow from an overused Pinterest meme -- people who, no matter their level of success, are constantly working on stretching themselves and their craft in new ways, and I draw inspiration from creative professionals in other genres just as much if not more so than other writers. As writers, we live too much in our own heads, and left to our own devices can quickly become antisocial without realizing it or meaning to do it, so I can't wait to be in an environment where I'm constantly being pulled into the real world and forced to be more present -- not just chasing down deadlines.
10. What are you looking to get out of your membership at The Refinery?
A community of creative, professional women (and men) whom I can not only learn from and collaborate with but advise and mentor -- I find I'm truly inspired and thriving when I'm giving as much as I take, eyebrows deep in that amorphous amoeba of pooled creative energy. But in a such a young city like Austin, it's been a little hard to find peers who aren't consumed by young kids or haven't been out of the game for a while. I'm hoping synchronicity steps in -- and that I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I'm going to learn from other creatives who are a decade (or even two) younger. For starters, can someone please explain Periscope to me? Lol.
11. Million dollar question: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully, as parents -- my husband and I are both 38, and though we've been trying for a few years, it's not even close to being as simple as "pulling the goalie." You try for 15+ years not to get pregnant and then you're ready and… hurry up and wait. Especially when your partner is in sales and travels all the time for work. I'm really passionate about being more open as women to the challenges and reality of fertility and how our bodies actually function as we age, and just how vastly different each woman's experience is from another, because they sure as hell don't teach you that in school. And the miracle of life is just that: a creation nothing short of miraculous. I just love this recent piece by my friend Sara for local mom mag Love Child for telling it like it is. If it doesn't happen for us, I feel like our combined experiences and journeys so far have led us to rise to the challenge of fostering humans and helping them overcome past trauma or family dysfunction to realize their best lives are still ahead of them -- just like we've done for the animals that cross our path -- which is something we will probably still do even if we have a biological child. On the career front, I see myself continuing to work on and hone my craft as a writer, perhaps publishing a book or longer work of fiction (I wrote a screenplay in college and minored in Cinema Studies, and have always wanted to combine that with journalism to make a documentary). Hopefully also splitting my time between Austin and back home in New England -- maybe even some time each year in France or Ireland, too. My soul yearns for the sea -- I never lived more than 10 miles from the ocean my entire life before moving to Austin. It fills my cup, spiritually, and I also miss the walkability, public transportation, architecture, history, and more European cultural influences of my home city. Not to mention old friends and family. Without whom, it's impossible to stay grounded. Roots and wings, right?