How I Got Here: Nilofer Merchant
Rubicon Consulting


Before founding her own technology consulting firm in 1999, Nilofer Merchant worked for a number of the big names in technology, from Apple Computer to Autodesk. Along the way she worked for a lot of different personalities; at Apple alone, Ms. Merchant had 23 different managers. She attributes much of her success to "failing fast" and "failing often" and always getting right back up again. Writer Elizabeth Garone spoke to Ms. Merchant about her journey. Edited excerpts follow.

[Nilofer Merchant]
Nilofer Merchant

Full name: Nilofer Merchant
Age: 40
Hometown: Los Gatos
Current position: CEO/Founder, Rubicon Consulting
First job: Administrative Assistant at Apple Computer
Favorite job: My current one
Education: B.S. in Economics from University of San Francisco, M.B.A. from Santa Clara University
Years in the industry: 18
How I got here in 10 words or less: Many companies, many positions, failing fast, and having courage.

Q: As CEO/Founder, what are your responsibilities?

A: Leading an ensemble of strategists, and each of those strategists is responsible for doing transformational client work.

Q:You talk about working with some of the smartest people in the industry, whether it's your clients or your team of strategists. How do you make sure that you are on the ball each day?

[How I Got Here]
Best advice: "Be the business person first. Every firm has a context of what is going on: early market or late market, leading player or not, many competitors or few. These all set the context for every single decision that is made," says Ms. Merchant. "But do we talk about it? Rarely. Marketers at all levels must know what matters to the firm. Is it growth or profit?"
Skills you need: Chiefly, says Ms. Merchant, you need "that gut, intuition or analytic mindset that helps you to find the 'thing' that will allow you to know your customer incredibly well and thus meet their sometimes unnamed, sometimes unknown needs."
Degrees you should go for: M.B.A.
Where you should start: "Your first few jobs should be about learning," advises Ms. Merchant. "Make sure there are lots and lots of smart people who believe in a meritocracy model."
Professional organizations to contact: "I'm not much of a "joiner" but I read about 30 plus publications, blogs and magazines a day," offers Ms. Merchant. She suggests figuring out who the leading-edge thinkers are to pay attention to them.
Salary range: $200,000-plus

A: I think that's the gift. First of all, I have the ability to context switch. Secondly, I just really work on being me at all times. I think it would be hard to fake the energy. If you were operating all from your brain and your ego all the time, it would be more demanding. But I operate as much from my heart and my intuition where I can help them see the truth in their business, and that's operating from the gift. It's a really easy place to come from for me.

Q: You had 23 managers at Apple alone. Was there anything you learned during that time and from that unique experience?

A: Every leader has a particular style, need, and way of looking at information. While it would be easy to say one was good or another was lacking, the reality is that no person has the same facts, abilities, or perspectives as what they might need. Today, I walk into organizations looking for what any leader does have to offer, and then try to complete the picture if I can.

Q: Making that jump from working for others to founding your own company, how did you do it?

A: I got fired by Carol Bartz [the CEO] of Autodesk. So, it wasn't as if I jumped from a successful venture to create another successful venture. I got divorced and got fired in the same week. It was more like a "pull the plug from the wall" kind of thing, and it was a do-over. It was a starting over and really thinking about what were my gifts, what did I really want to accomplish, how could I serve other people, and the company really came from that genesis.

Q: How long between getting fired and getting started with your new venture?

A: I probably took three to six months to process on it and kind of figure out what was the next thing.

Q: Where do you go next?

A: I've never been one to be focused on doing bigger. I have been one to focus on being better. So, I've been thinking about how to add more value to the industry, be a greater thought leader for the industry. What if rather than just shaping the quality of decisions of our clients, what if I could improve how the tech industry makes strategy decisions? So, I've been thinking a lot about what is the best way for me to start shaping the way the industry thinks about things. That's the question. I'm not sure if I have the answer yet.

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