Kirsten Mellor, VP and GC of CafePress, on building relationships and working closely with her team,which stretches from Louisville to San Francisco
For Kirsten Mellor, Vice President (VP) and General Counsel (GC) at CafePress Inc., success begins with relationships. Whether the relationship is with her team in local San Francisco offices or across the country in Louisville, Kentucky, with a former colleague or even with her family, Mellor stays centered and successful when she is intentional in the professional and personal relationships in her life.
Mellor came to CafePress in early 2011. Prior, she worked for six years as VP and GC at Riverdeep Inc., which eventually merged with Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co. Before Riverdeep, Mellor made a name for herself working as General and Corporate Counsel for several Internet, e-commerce and software companies, including Macys.com, eGain Communications, Critical Path Inc. and eGreetings Network Inc.
700 Million Items & Counting
CafePress is the Internet mecca for on-demand printing of products through user-generated and licensed content platforms. As of 2014, more than 700 million unique virtual products exist on CafePress, with an average of 100,000 new images added by users weekly. CafePress has 20 million-plus members worldwide and a staggering 11 million unique visitors each month.
Users can find T-shirts, hoodies, posters, bumper stickers, mugs and more from major entertainment properties—Marvel’s “The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Star Trek,” for example—as well as design products dedicated to unique hobbies, family celebrations or the military.
“Taking a piece of user-generated licensed content and printing on demand comes with a host of intellectual property and technical issues in creating the end product for our customer,” Mellor said. “We are dealing with bleeding-edge intellectual property issues all the time. Some lawyers would find this daunting, but it’s exciting work for me and my team.”
Helming a Cross-Country Team
Mellor works closely with a team of lawyers who are in her Bay Area offices as well as a team in Louisville. So, how does she keep things running smoothly?
“Over-communication,” Mellor said with a laugh. “The tools of the modern workplace—Skype, IM, email—make it easy to connect with each other.”
According to Mellor, face-to-face meetings also remain important. “I fly out [to Louisville] a couple times a year. The Kentucky people come here several times a year. The camaraderie of my team is very important to me. They need to meet and enjoy the folks they work with to produce at their highest level. We try to do some out-of-office team-building things whenever we get the opportunity.”
Feed & Be Fed
Mellor not only invests time in connecting with her team, she also makes networking with other in-house lawyers a top priority. “In-house life, depending on the size of the company, can be quite lonely. You’re often the only or one of a few legally trained people in an environment. It’s been important for me to have a network of people I can bounce things off of,” Mellor said.
Continuing legal education, attending conventions and being a member of both local and national organizations have served Mellor well. “Those interconnections are incredibly valuable,” she noted. “Once you leave law-firm life, you’re not working with 200-plus lawyers; you’re working with businesspeople with different training and perspectives. I try to give back to the networks, too. If you feed them, they will feed you.”
Mellor’s intention to stay connected to the law community surfaced in a coincidental moment early on at CafePress. “My first or second day, the CFO [Chief Financial Officer] was filling me in on some prior acquisitions. She mentioned an acquisition of a company in North Carolina. She said something about the target’s lawyer: ‘The lawyer on the other side was just great.’”
The description of the deal partner reminded Mellor of a former colleague from Testa Hurwitz in Boston, Kathy Fields. “It turned out that it was her,” Mellor said. “I called her and we laughed over that one. I ended up hiring her for CafePress M&A [mergers and acquisitions] work, and she did a number of acquisitions for us. It was great to have that history and shorthand. I knew where she was coming from and trusted her skills completely.”
Lessons in Mentoring
Mellor prizes an expansive legal network and staying connected with talented colleagues. Furthermore, her people-focused attitude has found her mentors in places both likely and unlikely.
“One of the things I’ve learned is applying humor in the workplace,” Mellor said. “What lawyers do is often dry and can be stressful. I’m not a not serious person, but we can enjoy what we’re doing while we do it.”
She tries to inject humor into situations to help diffuse problem-solving pain—“so we can get down to the work of fixing things,” Mellor said. “I definitely picked that up from Mike Zukerman, now Acting COO [Chief Operating Officer] and Chief Legal Officer of CSAA Insurance Group.”
Lightening up in the office sometimes takes effort for Mellor, but she finds that it pays off. “Making sure that no matter how touchy things are, you’re attacking challenges with a sense of enthusiasm and fun,” she said, “can make a difficult job easier.”
Hilary Sutton is a freelance writer and Principal of HSL Creative based in Lynchburg, Virginia.