Gilt Groupe's Susan Lyne on Her Biggest Risk

The chairwoman of online retailer Gilt Groupe recalls how getting fired from ABC led her to take the biggest risk of her career

I was unprepared when I walked into Bob Iger’s office in April 2004 and he told me I was out as president of entertainment. As often happens at ABC, it was, “We’re giving your job to somebody else. We’d love to have you stay, and I’m sure we’ll find something.” The best thing I did at that moment was be honest with myself. There are way too many people who once ran empires wandering the halls of entertainment companies with their own so-called production company. I said, “Let me go.”

I had never been fired before, and I had no idea what to do next. I went back to New York, and I got a call almost immediately about a similar job at another network. Part of me wanted to dive in again and say, “I’ll show them.” But after a couple of meetings, I realized it was an emotional move. Instead of just reacting, I now had a chance to direct my destiny.

I’d gotten a call from Martha Stewart Living about a board position. I accepted it, and I thought it was certainly going to be an interesting chair that summer: Martha had just been convicted [of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements in connection with the ImClone insider-trading scandal]. Over the summer, I spent more and more time with the board, and eventually they broached the CEO job. After Labor Day, when I began talking to headhunters about senior roles at cable and media companies, I found myself comparing all of them to Martha Stewart.

I was surprised that I was more interested in a company that was in danger of going under. Advertisers had fled Martha Stewart, and it was hemorrhaging cash; CBS had canceled the television show. In every role I’d had up to that point, there had always been another person to blame if it didn’t work. Now I had to accept the idea that I owned their success or failure going forward. That was scary.

But there was a moment in late October when I said, “O.K., I can do this.” I had gone over to their office for a presentation about new concepts for a high-end bedding line. I felt it was a place I could feed both of the things I love: true creative work and rebuilding a business. I told them yes that day. It was the least safe choice, and yet, in success, the most rewarding, in part because it ultimately led me to my current role at Gilt Groupe. — As told to Ira Boudway

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