Motherly @ Work features the stories and insights of modern women growing their careers—and their families.
A stepmother of two with a little one on the way, Michelle Feiner understands the pressures felt by the working parent. In fact, she spent 7 years freelancing, mainly for maternity leaves, in NYC, Silicon Valley, and LA. It was that experience that led her to where she is today; running a cutting-edge talent-matching company called Emissaries.
In Michelle’s case, recognizing the changing environment in the US—one where extended and paid maternity leaves were becoming more prevalent—led her to a bold hypothesis: perhaps there was space for an agency that helped companies do just that. Maybe there was a huge market for it.
After a shot of tequila and a cocktail napkin business plan (no, we’re not kidding), Michelle set the wheels in motion.
Her experience with some of the most innovative and iconic companies in the media, tech and entertainment industries—NBC Entertainment, Tastemade, Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst, WSJ., among many others—gave her drive, knowledge, and confidence that she’s the one who will make this happen.
Now, Emissaries has been featured in the likes of Fast Company, Forbes and TechRepublic, to name a few. It’s all happening.
An emissary is one with a special mission to represent another person. And Michelle’s mission? We’ll let her tell you that herself.
What happened first: deciding to be an entrepreneur, or getting the idea for Emissaries?
Michelle Feiner: I definitely had the idea for Emissaries first, though I like to think I’ve had an entrepreneurial spirit since I was a kid.
I got the idea for Emissaries when I spent seven years freelancing in Manhattan, in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, mainly filling maternity leaves. There was such a demand for my time that I was often booked several months in advance and I had to decline a lot of work.
It made me think, “I could scale the idea of maternity leave coverage.”
Plus, maternity leave fill-ins were always my favorite type of freelance project. Not only were the expectant and new moms incredibly appreciative, so were their co-workers to not have to take on that added workload. I’ve never felt more valued in my career.
Supporting women, families, colleagues and companies was the catalyst for me to create Emissaries.
Did you have an “ah-ha!” moment?
Michelle Feiner: Definitely. Years passed since I originally had the idea for Emissaries back around 2010. In the summer of 2015 several U.S. companies announced enhanced parental leaves policies and they were getting a ton of press for it. It made me think the U.S. market was finally ready for a recruiting agency specializing in parental leave coverage. There are agencies like ours in the U.K., Europe and Australia but I’m glad I moved quickly because as far as I’m aware, we were the first U.S. recruiting agency to specialize in parental leave fill-ins via a nationwide network of seasoned freelancers.
Were there steps you took to test your idea: to make sure there was a need for it?
Michelle Feiner: Yep, that’s one of my favorite business mottos: find a need and fill it. Not only is Emissaries a new business – it was also a new model and it supports a new social norm. I consulted with HR professionals, employment lawyers, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and women who recently took maternity leave. I researched similar businesses and models in both the U.S. and abroad. I still read about industry trends and news on a daily basis – Google alerts help me to stay on the cutting edge because family leave, female leaders and the gig economy are all hot global topics at the moment.
That’s one of my favorite business mottos: find a need and fill it.
What makes Emissaries unique as a recruitment agency?
Michelle Feiner: A lot! Unfortunately, many recruiting and staffing agencies and recruiters have a bad rap. When I was freelancing I never used a recruiting or staffing agency to get gigs simply because they took a cut of my rate. The best freelancers get constant job and gig offers; it doesn’t make sense for them to give up a portion of their pay.
It does make sense for them to sign up with a talent-matching agency like Emissaries if it helps them get access to new clients. Thus, we purposefully never take a cut of freelancers’ pay.
I’m also very excited to announce that in October we’re launching a new freelance marketplace. Unlike other freelance marketplaces, no additional fees apply for hiring, we don’t promote project bidding nor do we take a cut of freelancers’ pay. Plus, all of our talent are vetted for in-demand skills and they must abide by our talent checklist in order to avoid employee misclassification.
Emissaries was structured to attract the best freelance talent across industries. Many of our freelancers have won industry awards, worked for Fortune 500 brands and are not signed up with staffing agencies. Also worth mentioning: our pricing for companies is often more affordable vs. the competition and this is in part because there’s an element of social change to our business.
Did you ever doubt your idea? And how did you overcome that feeling?
Michelle Feiner: Totally. Building a business is a ton of work! On top of that, changing a social norm is an uphill battle because many U.S. companies still don’t have awesome parental leave policies. I’m often working with women who are the first at their company to have a baby or get paid leave or hire a fill-in. We’re paving new roads here, people! I’m a firm believer that you get what you ask for. If you feel your company should support expecting and new parents more, devise and present a better plan. I actually wrote another Motherly piece that will help you with this. Knowing that my business is paving new paths for working parents, workplace equality, work-life integration and the growing independent contractor workforce is incredibly rewarding, motivating and squashes any doubts.
When you decided to “jump,” what happened?
Michelle Feiner: It was a random weeknight during the summer of 2015, and my husband and I were out in Santa Monica at The Misfit. We capped off dinner with a shot of tequila at the restaurant bar. We were talking for the thousandth time about my business idea. I finally got the courage to start Emissaries over that shot of tequila! True story!
We wrote the very basic and initial business plan on a cocktail napkin. Cliché I know but awesome story, right?
Did you have a “village” and how did that contribute to Emissaries success?
Michelle Feiner: Speaking of my husband, he’s also an entrepreneur and a very successful one. I’m so proud of him. He moved to the U.S. from Israel when he was 22 years old. His first job in the U.S. was as a day laborer digging trenches which goes to show you how he literally built his career with his own determination and bare hands.
Another cliché for you: he got his first business deal after a pitch in an elevator and now he runs the U.S.’ premier enterprise-grade networking solutions provider for the modern home. He just turned 40 and his business made it into the Inc. 5000 list the past three years in a row!
And our Emissaries village; currently, we have nearly 1,000 seasoned and vetted freelancers in our nationwide network. Once the marketplace launches that number is bound to grow quickly. Our freelancer network is a constant source of inspiration and feedback. Additional vital elements to our success include a strong digital presence, a lawyer who specializes in our industry, an accountant who is on top of it, solid press relationships and beautiful branding.
How does being a mother affect the way you run your business?
Michelle Feiner: I’m a step or bonus mom to two amazing boys, 9 and 7 years old. I’m also expecting a girl in late November. Becoming a mom has enabled me to better relate to the concerns of expecting and new parents—a key audience to our success.
Is there any one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring lady bosses?
Michelle Feiner: I’m pretty sure I have Mark Cuban to thank for this wisdom, but when you’re starting a new business, you should be an expert on the industry. Reporters and editors should know you and vice versa. You don’t necessarily need a publicist. When reporters know you, they can directly connect with you when they’re looking for a quote or content on a particular topic. I received a lot of press for Emissaries without the help of a publicist. So, start a bunch of Google alerts, read about your industry daily and introduce yourself to reporters on LinkedIn or Twitter. Press provides market awareness, validation for potential clients and better search rankings, too. The results are worth the effort, as everything should be when you’re building a new business.
When you’re starting a new business, you should be an expert on the industry.
What does the word “motherly” mean to you?
Michelle Feiner: Motherly means being compassionate, supportive and encouraging. Some of the best leaders have similar caregiving qualities.
Haley Campbell is the founder of Beluga Baby and creator of the ultimate bamboo baby carrier. She is a regular contributor to Motherly and is an avid advocate for entrepreneurs, and for the new generation of mothers making the world their own.