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Talking Shop: Marissa Tarleton on Becoming the CEO of RetailMeNot

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No one likes getting a deal more than Marissa Tarleton, who combines her love of negotiating, retail and technology in her new role as CEO of RetailMeNot while also encouraging a company culture that emphasizes employee growth and support.

By Jenny Hoff, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Hair and Makeup by Alicia Beller, Styled by Mandi Summers

Marissa Tarleton - RetailMeNot

Marissa Tarleton loves to shop and hates paying full price for anything. It’s no wonder, as she spent her childhood in Asia, roaming the markets in Hong Kong, where she learned the price advertised is just a starting point for negotiation.

“Negotiation and discounting is how I was raised to shop,” Tarleton says. “I was a little girl, around 6 years old, and we would leave Tokyo to shop at the market in Hong Kong, where we could get absolutely anything for incredible discounts. I still have a behavioral reaction when I see a discount; it motivates me.”

Tarleton’s deal-making prowess makes her a natural fit as the new CEO of digital-coupon and savings site RetailMeNot, where the end goal is to help shoppers save as much money as possible every time they make a purchase and to help businesses sell more by offering the kind of deals consumers want. In 2018, the company facilitated more than $4.9 billion in global sales, and it currently boasts more than 20 million monthly mobile users.

“I don’t want us to just be a place for coupons to stores, but a place where you can save on everything you want, from retail to travel to restaurants, and you don’t have to be shopping online to get the discount,” she says. “That’s what we are working towards right now.”

Tarleton has a clear vision for where she wants to take the Austin-based company. She was appointed CEO in January after spending three years as its chief marketing officer, helping transition the company from desktop to mobile capabilities and building out its savings platform to include deals and cash-back opportunities, even when consumers are shopping in store rather than online. Her success in this role earned her a spot on Forbes’ CMO Next list, where she was profiled as one of the top chief marketing officers in the country.

“I like a challenge and I like how fast-paced the tech industry is,” Tarleton says. “One day, it’s mobile. The next day, it’s voice commerce. It makes me stay ahead of the game.”

Change and challenges have been constants in Tarleton’s life. At 5 years old, her family left her home state of California to move to Tokyo for her father’s job as an executive with General Electric. When she was 10, they moved to Taipei. Three years later, she moved to Hong Kong. When she was 15, experiencing the kind of freedom any American teenager would envy, her parents abruptly made the decision to move back to the United States. They feared their wanderlust-driven daughter would never return to her home country if she graduated abroad.

“Suddenly, I went from having so much freedom in Hong Kong, traveling and jumping on public transportation when I wanted to get somewhere, to spending my days at an all-girls school in upstate New York,” she recalls. “It was a huge change.”

It was a change that turned out to give Tarleton a chance to focus on her future. She believes it was this experience of living in a small, quiet town and attending a single-sex school that gave her the confidence and independence she needed to build the kind of career she has today.

“It was academically rigorous, highly competitive and there were no distractions,” she says. “I found out I was smarter than I thought I was.”

Tarleton is passionate when she talks about her time at Emma Willard School, a premier boarding school that resembles a medieval castle with its Gothic-style architecture and ivy-flanked stone walls.

“You’re not comparing yourself to boys and there is this empowerment that happens,” Tarleton says.

There, she gained the kind of confidence that served her well when she entered the male-dominated tech industry. Comfortable with competition and a belief in her own abilities, Tarleton says she never considered herself any different from her male colleagues, and in return, they never treated her differently.

“I just sat at the table,” she says. “I didn’t ask for permission—ever. I just sat down. It never occurred to me to do otherwise.”

After obtaining degrees in political science and Asian studies from Colgate University, as well a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas, Tarleton spent 13 years, the majority of her career, at tech giant Dell. While there, she honed her e-commerce expertise and worked long hours to move up in her profession. While the work was challenging and the industry competitive, Tarleton says she was grateful to be at a company that would support her when she decided to start a family, a recommendation she has for any woman wanting to enter the tech industry.

“When I had my children, I knew I had to stop working 80-hour weeks,” she says. “My kids were more important to me than how fast I was moving up in my career at that time. Luckily, Dell has very supportive policies, especially during those early years with children. They continued to promote me, even when I scaled back my workdays to have more time at home.”

It’s only when talking about her children, 12-year-old Owen and 11-year-old Charlotte, that Tarleton’s confidence falters a bit. Like every mom on the planet, she questions whether she is doing enough, being enough for the people she loves most.

“You never want your children to look back and say, ‘My mom wasn’t there very much,’ ” she says, grabbing a tissue to dab away her sudden tears. “I always feel bad, but I have so much responsibility for both that I just do my best. I spend a good amount of time trying to be a good mom as well as a CEO. Balance is still one of the hardest things that I struggle with.”

Oddly enough, when gushing about his replacement, RetailMeNot Founder and former CEO Cotter Cunningham points out Tarleton’s ability to give of herself to her family as well as succeed at her job as one of her most admirable traits.

“She is not only crazy smart but compassionate and cares about people,” he says. “And as a mom, she understands what parents face. I don’t know anyone who can balance family and work like she does.”

Still, Tarleton admits her greatest insecurity is that she always feels like she is disappointing someone. “When you spread yourself thin,” she says, “being enough becomes a worry. I think it’s something a lot of women struggle with.”

A quote on the wall of RetailMeNot’s meeting space and lunchroom reminds employees “Done is better than perfect.” Perhaps it’s a reminder to the company’s CEO as well.

Marissa Tarleton - RetailMeNot - Computer

A CHAMPION FOR WOMEN

As Tarleton tries to find her own work/life balance by reserving certain afternoons for her children’s sports games, traveling for cheerleading competitions with her daughter and scheduling date nights with her son, she knows it’s imperative for a leader to help employees navigate the choppy waters of having both fulfilling personal lives and productive work lives.

Tarleton believes millennials in particular need more support in the workplace, as they tend to blend their work and home lives more. With more than 70 percent of RetailMeNot’s 450 employees being in the millennial generation, Tarleton is keenly aware of the need to make the company’s Congress Avenue building not only a place to come to work, but also a home away from home. In the last two years, Tarleton worked with Cunningham and other members of the leadership team to help build a culture of connectedness through small group chats, karaoke nights and various subgroups so employees can find others facing the same life issues.

“I’ve seen friendships built here and even families built here that I’ve never seen at another company,” she says. RetailMeNot also sponsors a women’s group so female employees, especially those embedded in the engineering team, which is comprised mainly of men, can connect with other women and find the kind of support they need to stay fulfilled.

“I feel more comfortable being my whole self at work when there are other supportive women around,” says Molly King, a senior software engineer who was the only woman on her team at her previous company. She is now a co-lead of RetailMeNot’s women’s working group. “It’s OK to be vulnerable. If you’re having a bad day, you have a group of people to talk to and they’re there to support you and lift you back up.”

With women being the majority of RetailMeNot’s customer base, it’s important to the company that females play an integral role in leadership and strategy. “We have conversations about topics that are top of mind,” Tarleton says. “We put role models in front of these ladies that allow them to ask questions about how to shape their futures.”

When it comes to supporting employees, RetailMeNot strives to go above and beyond. For instance, it offers maternity leave of four months and paternity leave that’s more generous than that of most companies. Benefits like these are crucial in attracting top talent, but they are also the kinds of policies that keep women on board once they start a family and help them feel supported and inspired to continue building their careers.

Marissa Tarleton - RetailMeNot - Window

FOSTERING A SUPPORT SYSTEM

RetailMeNot’s downtown office reflects the culture Cunningham and Tarleton worked hard to build. With a barista greeting everyone upon entry, ready to whip up their favorite espresso drinks, Austin artwork flanking the walls, inspirational quotes around every corner and stocked snack areas with Whole Foods-style treats, the offices are both hip and homey. The space is designed to encourage collaboration and friendship.

“The power of relationship building is one of the most important things you can do as a leader,” Tarleton says. “You have to get to know people. That’s what builds roots.”

Tarleton says it’s relationships that have enabled her to have both a successful career and a family. Her husband’s support of her job and his own flexible work schedule give her security knowing their children have constant parental involvement. Tarleton’s mother also lives in Austin and is actively involved with her grandchildren.

However, Tarleton recognizes mothers also need to build a support system in the workplace, something she didn’t do when she had her children.

“I didn’t have those kinds of relationships at work that would help me with all the questions you have when you become a mom,” she says. “I wish I would have realized at an earlier age the importance of building that network of allies.”

She encourages women in her company to seek out those relationships early on, as they can be crucial to feeling connected, especially in the wake of big life changes. Being constantly uprooted as a child may have played a role in her need for self reliance, she admits, and while she believes that helped her navigate the competitive landscape of the tech industry, she realizes the road might have been more fun if she had had more friends as she climbed the corporate ladder.

“Your development doesn’t just have to come from your company,” she says. “Also, the people around you can have a significant impact.”

Marissa Tarleton - RetailMeNot - Gold Table

SERVING WITH PURPOSE

As the youngest of three girls, Tarleton became a bit of a protégée to her business-minded father. While he traveled more than she would have liked, she learned from him that even if a parent has a busy career, he or she can still give their children the confidence of being deeply loved.

Tarleton credits her mom’s influence to her desire to give back. No matter which foreign city they lived in, her mom taught her to always be involved in the community and to build roots, a sense of responsibility she hopes to pass on to her own children.

“She’s a firecracker, always involved and always wanting to help people,” Tarleton says of her mother with a smile. “She just called me this morning and asked why I hadn’t yet given to the Ann Richards School.”

The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders is, in fact, on Tarleton’s radar. As a believer in the power of single-sex education for women, she has helped facilitate a relationship between the all-girls school and her company to talk about the role of women in tech.

“We’ve hosted 75-plus girls here for a career day where they’ve talked to more than 20 women about the industry,” she says. “I want them to see what a career in tech could look like.”

On a personal front, Tarleton also takes time to give back, but she is adamant that her kids be involved in the process, in part so they learn the importance of helping others and in part because she wants to be with them as much as possible when she isn’t at work. However, she learned pretty quickly to choose her volunteer locations wisely.

“My kids love animal-shelter work, but every time we do that, we tend to come home with a pet,” she laughs. “So, I try to curtail that.”

Tarleton and her family now adopt in less permanent ways. During the holidays, they adopt a family and foster children through Helping Hand Home for Children and buy holiday gifts they can deliver.

As outdoor junkies and runners, they help keep the trail around Lady Bird Lake beautiful by sponsoring a garden they tend throughout the year.

Tarleton is also on the advisory board for Global Wildlife Conservation, a local organization that focuses on caring for endangered lands and wildlife.

It’s understandable why she feels spread thin. Between running a 450-person organization, spending time with her husband and children, and volunteering for various causes, Tarleton admits there isn’t a lot of time left for self-care.

“I did make a resolution last year to develop some hobbies,” she says with a laugh. “But then I became CEO, so that kind of got put on hold.”

While she doesn’t get massages and she works part of the time she’s on vacation, she does give herself at least one hour every day for some fresh air during her morning run with her two beloved rescue dogs, Jet and June.

“I’m very attached to my dogs. They bring me a lot of joy. They even sleep with me,” she says. “I would probably get two or three more if I didn’t think they would break the family!”

It’s little moments like these that help Tarleton feel grounded. And it’s making the most of every minute, even when she feels spread thin, that keeps her looking forward. As a mother and wife, she feels the pain of spending time away from her family. That’s why, as a CEO, she needs to feel her work can truly make a difference through helping consumers save money in as many ways as possible and helping the company’s employees feel encouraged and supported.

“If you’re going to have that guilt, if you’re going to sacrifice so much, it has to mean something more,” Tarleton says. “The purpose has to be there.”

Marissa Tarleton - RetailMeNot - Austin Woman Cover

MARISSA TARLETON ON GOALS, CAREER GROWTH AND BUILDING ALLIES

What do you wish you would have known when you were just starting out?

“I wish I would have learned earlier to be more patient and less selfish. It took me too long to learn to think about more than myself, and it took me too long to manage and curtail my impatient drive to move up to the next level. I wished I would have learned early on to build allies.”

You worked 80-hour weeks as you moved up the corporate ladder. Is that still required today?

“I don’t think it’s about how many hours you work. I think it’s about your confidence and knowing what you want and asking for it. Don’t even listen for no.”

What do you think might hold a woman back in her career growth?

“We want to be perfect in everything we are doing, and I think that impacts whether we raise our hand for a job. It takes courage and being comfortable with the leadership and the occasional failure. You just have to jump in and take risks. What’s the worst that can happen if you fail? Those bruises and cuts can actually make you better. When I was first approached on becoming the CEO, I paused for a second to make sure I had it in me. The feeling quickly subsided. I know I am made for this.”

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